‘Shoplifters’ Cannes Review: Is the Seventh Time a Charm for Hirokazu Kore-eda?

Cannes 2018: Frequent Cannes participant returns to the Croisette with the richest film of his career

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has become a Cannes regular, with his latest film “Shoplifters,” which premiered in the main competition, marking the director’s seventh time at the festival.

But past is not precedent and favorite son status doesn’t get you far this year, when familiar faces Paolo Sorrentino and Naomi Kawase were wholly shut out and films from first-time attendees Eva Husson and Pawel Pawlikowski have caused the biggest splashes so far.

If you want a seat at the table in Cannes 2018, the question is: What do you have to show?

For Kore-eda, the answer is his richest film to date. Not only does “Shoplifters” skillfully entwine several disparate threads he’s explored over his prolific career, it does so with the understated confidence and patient elegance of an artist who has fully matured.

Kore-eda marshals his considerable talents to tell what initially appears to be another story of family love and perseverance in the margins of society. He follows the Shibatu family, a tightly knit, seemingly content nuclear unit living in close quarters in Granny’s dingy shack, one step removed from homelessness.

Tough times call for tough measures and, with exception of twentyish daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works in a kind of PG-13 peep show, father Osamu (Lily Franky, of the director’s 2013 Cannes entry “Like Father, Like Son”), mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and preteen son Shota (Jyo Kairi) all run one kind of criminal scheme or another.

Thieves they may be, but thieves with a code: They don’t steal personal possession and only rob to sustain themselves. With that kind of rationale, it’s no wonder that when pint-sized runaway Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) shows up on their doorstep they quickly make her part of the family – after all, the seven-year-old’s parents aren’t looking for her anyway, and she makes a great thief.

Kore-eda spends the first half of the film warmly observing the newly integrated family. Yuri grows more comfortable, Granny’s (Kirin Kiki) health begins to fade; it’s the circle of life. And yet, throughout those placid moments, we gradually begin to notice more and more cracks in the façade. Just whose mother is Granny? Why do they ask Yuri to change her name? And why are they so existentially afraid of any and all administration?

Moving at his own deliberate pace, the director eventually reveals his cards, displaying the impressive dexterity of his many sleights of hand. To the film’s immense credit, these narrative developments never play as cheap twists – they may cause us to question everything we’ve previously seen, but they also deepen the film’s emotional and thematic heft. They make the viewer more engaged, not less.

As a mature and sophisticated work from a filmmaker who’s been to Cannes many times before without ever taking home the gold, “Shoplifters” makes a strong argument for the Palme d’Or. Or at least it would in any other year. As we’ve seen so often throughout this most unpredictable festival, last-year’s logic and $1.50 will get you on the bus.