Probably the most immediate comparison to Shoplifters that can be made is with Roma, even if tenuously. In Roma, we focus on the year in the life of a Mexico City upper-middle-class family with a central focus on their live-in maid as she juggles work with the urgencies and unexpectedness of life. In Shoplifters, a rag-tag “family” unit in Tokyo navigates life under the thumb of poverty and scavenging/survival, while battling the potential loneliness of existence in the face of an ever-expanding universe. Both films deal in the personal and the epic feeling, but in differing ways. Roma’s pan & scan large format photography versus the subtlety of composition in Shoplifters makes for a visual palette battle that is more fun than combative. Deeper than that though, there is a struggle between the stories in the sadness and triumph of the characters presented.
Is there a winner? Indeed, Shoplifters is the freshest in my mind, being the most recently watched of the two. It’s a scrappy dappy flick that never condescends or looks down on anyone, in the audience or on the screen. There’s a heartbreaking philosophy to the proceedings that never undercuts the heart or empathy, working side by side, hand in hand instead. It’s been called humanist often, and while that fits (as it does with a plethora of movies, being that cinema reflects the human condition), it might be best to label Shoplifters an exercise in humility before the eyes of the stars above. Did I write that? Yes, it’s a tale that impresses itself upon us in open and vulnerable ways, but all without a shred of regret. What’s to regret anyway?
For the first half, the movie makes its way off the back of love and joy despite and in spite of lacking enough money to afford “better things.” The family, ranging from a matriarchal grandmother to a couple to the young children, live in a house with little amenities, sleeping on the ground and making do without a lot. They steal groceries for survival but always make it clear not just to snatch and grab, trying for a symbiotic relationship with the community and environment. It’s not paycheck to paycheck, but worse in terms of income. Still, they push through, with gusto, street smarts, and love for one another.
By the second half, the movie goes for the throat, as consequences happen, the world caves in, revelations are made, and facades are ruined. This changeup comes about slowly but surely, like the weather. When it rains, it pours. The charm and grace of Shoplifters come from and is driven by the performances first and foremost, taking the writing and direction to various peaks of hope and valleys of depression. Never once is this a story that obstructs its telling to show off skill and craft, always technically nuanced and always engrossing. While spoken in Japanese, and while set in that foreign culture, it’s through the hustle and bustle of the actors and their depiction of life despite life, that makes Shoplifters shine brightly.
On the whole, Shoplifters reminded me of As Good As It Gets, and I know that sounds odd beyond the title matching the premise, but there is a depth that the two share, specifically in how the performances act and react to the world building, crumbling, then re-building. Roma shares common ground too, but more so with its sweeping expression of setting, of time, and the near intangible nature of memory. Shoplifters goes past all of the above, being flesh, bone, and blood before everything else and in the face of anything else. It’s a movie about how the very elements of nature – the universe’s and our own – can flip like a light switch for and against us, and how within that, all we have to hold on to is each other. Sometimes, that’s more than enough, just enough, or not nearly enough. Always, it’s there. Just there. Arms reaching out and all. What will you do?
Is there a winner? Yes.
RATING: 5 / 5
Shoplifters screens in New Orleans at The Broad starting January 25th.