QCinema review: Japanese film 'Shoplifters' is worth your time

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 26 2018 12:05 PM

The opening ceremony of the QCinema International Film Festival was held last October 20 at Gateway Mall Cinema 5. The festival was declared open by Vice Mayor Joy Belmonte, who has been a driving force since it started as a small, parochial film fest in 2012.

QCinema grew in stature every year, eventually going international. This year, there is a bigger thrust to make Quezon City a major film destination, at par with Cannes, Venice, and Sundance. Hence, the keynote speaker that night was Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat.

To make that point, there are more foreign films in the lineup this year. Six films submitted by their respective countries for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category are in the QCinema list. There are films from Poland ("Cold War"), South Korea ("Burning"), Paraguay ("The Heiresses"), Thailand ("Malila, the Farewell Flower"), and Taiwan ("The Great Buddha").

Last but not the least is this film from Japan which had already won the Palm d'Or from Cannes this year, and had the honor of being the opening film of the festival -- "Shoplifters" by Hirokazu Koreeda.

Osamu Shibata lived in a poor section of Tokyo with his ragtag family. Osamu and wife Nobuyo had menial jobs in construction and a laundry, respectively. Daughter Aki worked at a sex shop. Grandmother Hatsue contributed her pension and allowances. His pre-teen son Shota was Osamu's apprentice and assistant in being a shoplifter, to augment the family's need for groceries. One night, Osamu brought home an abandoned and abused little girl, Yuri. When they decided to keep her, Yuri threw the well-oiled family dynamics in a loop.

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This is probably the first time I have seen a Japanese film portray a family living in extreme poverty in an urban setting. It is very unsettling to see a part of Tokyo you never thought even existed even if you had actually been there. Despite their poverty, Osamu and family lived harmoniously with each other. Despite the petty crimes they commit, they are generally happy and content with the little they had. This is one "Modern Family" -- Japan style. After all, there was still honor and dignity within this family, even though they were thieves.

I have only seen one previous film by writer-director Koreeda which was "Like Father, Like Son," and I liked it very much. Here we see Koreeda again in his favorite element -- showing how a family reacts to a life-changing event. Unlike other films about poverty, this one did not make you cringe in disgust because of its hard-core exploitation. This was a frank and straightforward depiction of life in a Tokyo slum -- we do not feel compelled to feel sorry for them for the way they live.

Every actor had their moments to shine in their authentic performances. Lily Franky as Osamu was a cheerful and responsible patriarch. Sakura Ando as Nobuyo was a pragmatic yet compassionate mother. Kirin Kiki as Hatsue may look like an ordinary delightful grandmother, but she can hustle with the best of them. Mayu Matsuoka as Aki brought us behind the scenes of those infamous live peep shows. Kairi Jo had a challenging role as Shota who experienced angst and conscience with their way of life. Miyu Sasaki was practically silent as Yuri, but her presence changed their life in a major way.

The critical acclaim and awards buzz that precede this film may give unrealistic expectations. There are no big events that happen in most of the film. Things just coasted along like they do in real life. One climactic event does happen towards the end which then led to an unforeseeable, emotionally-charged conclusion. The languid pace at which Koreeda told the story may be too slow for one who is used to mainstream action-packed cinema. However, the scattered scenes of beautiful though muted poignancy and subtle humor make watching the film worth watching. 8/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."