@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 23 Nov 2018

Hirokazu Koreeda has forged a reputation as one of the most highly-regarded filmmakers in World cinema today with a series of rich, humanist dramas that examine the idea of the family; how they are constructed, how they can be pulled apart, and how they can be forged through ties other than blood.  After a brief, and less-well received foray into a different genre with legal thriller The Third Murder, he returns to his usual themes with the wonderful, quietly moving Shoplifters.

After a day spent stealing essentials from a supermarket in deft, well-drilled style, Osamu (Lily Franky) and young Shota (Jyo Kairi) encounter a little girl called Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) shivering outside her home as her parents argue indoors.  They take her home with them for some food and warmth, and she never leaves.  It’s clear the waif has suffered physical abuse, and her unfeasible cuteness also helps to melt the hearts of the other inhabitants of the crowded hovel they call home, indomitable matriarch Hatsue (the sadly recently departed Kirin Kiki), mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and teenager Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).  She becomes part of the family, playing Oliver to Shota’s Artful Dodger and Osamu’s seedy but loveable Fagin. Life bumbles along, but this family aren’t just the cheerful rogues they appear to be.

Thanks to previous highlights such as Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister, Koreeda has been described by enraptured critics as an heir to the great Yasujiro Ozu, while seeing himself as more akin to Ken Loach.  With Shopliftersit seems he falls somewhere between these two poles of influence.  There isn’t the heartbreaking gossamer delicacy of Ozu’s work, but nor is there Loach’s tendency to heave his political message to the forefront, rather than applying it as subtext.  If anything, his work could easily draw comparison to the Dardennes brothers, in that both take a studiously realist approach to stories of normal people in crisis, with similar skill and pathos.  Like Koreeda, the Belgian auteurs have also recently dipped their toes into genre film, with The Unknown Girl.

More than just an unusual family drama, Shoplifters spends its first two acts constructing a delicately braided mystery, before untangling it in one unceremonious brushstroke in the third with painful clarity and restrained melodrama.  We may have winced at the cluttered and cramped conditions in which these scrappy protagonists have lived, but we’re suddenly acutely aware just what a sanctuary it’s been for them.  It’s definitely a rug pull which some may feel clumsy after the patience and grace with which Koreeda paints his strange clan, but he’s more than laid the groundwork.

There are scenes of exquisite tenderness, usually involving Nobuyu and Yuri as the little girl begins to tentatively trust in the woman’s maternal affection, and the gentle humour in the family’s anti-social antics is also delightful.  By the time the switch in tone comes, the understated approach adopted to that point leaves the blunt inevitability of its outcome as less an emotional punch to the gut, and more a caress of the heart that leaves a bitter-sweet, longer-lasting bruise.  It’s easy to see just why Koreeda is so highly regarded, and why Shoplifters took the top prize at Cannes earlier this year.  As affecting as it is unfussy, as empathetic as it is refined, it’s simply a beautiful film.