Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is fascinated by the forces that shape families -- be those families biological, estranged, surrogate or even just symbolic. In Shoplifters, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, he has found one of his most intriguing subjects to date. Based on a collection of true news items about exactly what the film's title promises, Kore-eda's story centers around a household that at first might appear to be a somewhat ordinary family that has merely fallen on hard times. The father, Osamu (Lily Franky), works as a day laborer, but he and his young son Shota (Kairi Jō) still have to pilfer groceries from the supermarket to survive. Ditto Osamu's wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works at a bar, and her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works at a peep show dressing up as a schoolgirl. The whole family works and steals.
But gradually, through offhand comments and occasionally surprising actions, the connections between these individuals start to seem a lot less certain. Are Osamu and Shota, who like to bond over their smooth, well-coordinated shoplifting forays, actually father and son? Is there a darker past between Osamu and Nobuyo, who seem so affectionate and tender toward each other? Kore-eda eases us into this loving arrangement on the margins of society and then slowly, subtly undoes every assumption we might have made about these people. Typically big-hearted, he portrays all this with a straight face, refusing to play up irony or criminality. He also avoids saddling his characters with plot and instead presents them as they are: He follows them in their routines, so that his narrative proceeds at the winding pace of life.