In its quiet, achingly tenderhearted way, “Shoplifters” is a heresy. It suggests that we’re born into families of strangers (or worse) and that we find our true families, the people who genuinely care for us, among strangers we meet in the world. It presents a clan of con artists as a force for love. It’s willing to consider the moral upsides of petty theft and kidnapping. It’s in theory the worst family movie of 2018 — and in practice one of the year’s best films.
The writer-director is Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, a busy filmmaker — 17 features in 25 years — who likes to peer into his country’s underclass with empathy and occasional dollops of sentiment. “Nobody Knows” (2004), a piercing fact-based drama about children abandoned by their mother, has been Kore-eda’s best-known movie until now, although last year’s “After the Storm” is well worth a look. “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, and it’s a wise little marvel: a comedy-drama of human connectiveness.
The first thing we see is a father, Osamu (Lily Franky), encouraging his young son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), to boost a few items out of an urban supermarket. They have their routine down, hand signals and all. On the way back to their home, the two notice a 5-year-old girl, Juri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering with cold on a locked balcony. Her parents are nowhere to be seen. Why not take her home? They take her home.
Home is a poverty-row hovel so cluttered with people and things that your eye roams in vain for a place to rest. Osamu has a wearily cynical wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who has a grandmother, Hatsue, on whose pension they all seem to rely. (The grandmother, wily and generous with folk wisdom, is played by the veteran Japanese actress Kirin Kiki in her final performance before her death in September.) There’s an aunt, too, or a sister, named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), although she works in a peep-show booth under the nom du porn of Sakura.
But everything here seems provisional and makeshift. Are Osamu and Shota actually father and son? Are the father and mother even married? Look once and you’ll see an improvised family of grifters for whom money is survival and survival is paramount. Look as long and as closely as “Shoplifters” does, and you see bonds of loyalty and love forming in a Darwinian cityscape.
Kore-eda lets us into the heads of all the characters, but the key performance is Ando’s as the mother, whose heart is the hardest and therefore thaws the most helplessly. The family feeds the little girl they’ve found, pausing to notice the scars and burns on her arms, and then Osamu and Nobuyo carry her sleeping back to her house. As they stand outside listening to the parents scream insults at each other, Nobuyo slumps to the ground, stunned at the force of sudden maternal protectiveness she feels. They bring the girl back to their place. It’s not kidnapping if you don’t ask for ransom, is it?
“Shoplifters” is more interested in what happens between people than in plot, per se; as with the films of Kore-eda’s most obvious influence, the 20th-century master Yasujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”), the tectonic emotional shifts occur in a character’s face as he or she feels an unexpected flood of emotion. Again, Ando’s Nobuyo serves as the most affecting canvas, if only because she resists so thoroughly. This is a performance to treasure, one that in its subtle way hearkens back to the great actresses of classic Japanese cinema: Setsuko Hara, Kinuyo Tanaka, Machiko Kyo.
Without turning didactic or overtly political, “Shoplifters” presents Tokyo, Japan, and modern Earth as a place where humans have lost the art of intimacy. Aki is drawn to a client behind her mirrored peep-show window; she and we see only his messages written on whiteboard, but that’s good enough for love in this world. One of the most sweetly comic scenes in “Shoplifters” finds Nobuyo and Osamu making love for the first time in who knows how long, turned on by the sounds of a summer rainstorm and the new kindness they’re discovering in each other.
Happiness can be a bubble, though, and so it is here. We know the real world will crash in, appropriately and uncomprehendingly, but the shock of “Shoplifters” is the resilience of its characters and the way the tendrils of affection, once forged, prove devilishly hard to prune back. Maybe that’s Kore-eda’s sentimentality coming to the fore. Or maybe it’s just the hope he knows we need to keep moving. The film ends perfectly, one of its characters looking, looking, looking — and then seeing — and then, boom, cut to black. Who does she see? Who do you want her to?
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Starring Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky. At Kendall Square. 121 min. R (some sexual content and nudity). In Japanese, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.