More than at any point in history, we as moviegoers have access to a wider range of stories dealing with a panoply of topics. Films like Shoplifters, writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s most recent effort, now make the jump almost immediately following a theatrical and/or festival run to streaming services. In this case, Hulu acquired the rights, which made yet another compelling case for my $12 for 12 months subscription purchase being my wisest of 2018, life insurance notwithstanding.
Kore-eda’s previous feature, 2016’s After the Storm (available to stream as of this posting on Prime, Hoopla and Kanopy) is also interested in the dynamic of a non-traditional family, and the power that bonds them. But it’s Shoplifters that pushes the imperfections of his characters further, choosing this time to focus on a band of petty thieves surviving in the slums of Tokyo. Though the titular crime is certainly a unifying agent in this unconventional unit, they are defined by and recognizable in the much more universal, human interactions they have with one another. Worrying about money, having an awkward discussion about growing up with your father, running around the city with a sibling or stealing some alone with your significant other while the kids are away playing are all scenarios we know and understand, which makes the characters on screen that much more accessible and sympathetic. Kore-eda wisely focuses on these almost mundane experiences and delivers one of my favorite cinematic experiences of the past year.
A portion of Roger Ebert’s Hollywood Walk of Fame acceptance speech remains at the forefront of my mind almost incessantly. It’s been a guiding force in how I experience cinema and I think Kore-eda’s filmmaking stands as a testament to this model of thinking:
“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.
The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.”
Shoplifters presents the viewer with a rare opportunity to empathize with imperfect individuals on a fundamentally fun level. We’re aware of the hardships faced by each and the sadness that exists in their lives, yet it’s the scenes of this family together at dinner laughing after a successful score, or poking fun at each other as they wait for a storm to pass, which remain most vivid days after I’ve watched it. That we can come away from a movie that is ostensibly about the bleak outlook and pain endured by those on the fringes of society and feel almost joyous about the experience speaks to the civilizing effect Ebert mentioned.
It’s encouraging, then, that so many stories like Shoplifters are being picked up for distribution by popular outlets that make them more easily found by the general moviegoing audience; it certainly makes the mission of this site easier, and potential films we might discuss here more easily seen.