Shoplifters

[Spoilers ahead]

Imagine this scenario: a news item appears on TV about a group of squatters who have been caught sheltering a pair of long-lost children. The group has also been earlier implicated in other crimes petty and grave such as shoplifting, car-breaking, extortion and murder. The viewer is disgusted at the insidious outfit for having kidnapped and groomed kids to sustain their racket. He turns off the TV, more hardened, more cynical about the state of the society. This view of things is what Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters attempts to turn upside down, considers as it does these events from the inside. It takes as its mission to exemplify one of art’s important social functions: to cultivate understanding of and empathy towards lives other than one’s own.

Middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live illegally with old lady Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) in the latter’s tiny independent house nestled amidst apartment complexes in a residential Tokyo district. They also have with them young Shota (Kairi Jō), a preteen who accompanies Osamu on his shoplifting excursions, and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Hatsue’s step-granddaughter moonlighting as a sex worker. On their way back from a raid one day, Osamu and Shota find toddler Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone at a house. They bring her home to feed her and discover that she is being abused by her parents. They decide to retain her at their home, showing great concern and affection towards her. Yuri warms up to the bunch as well and tags along with Shota on his outings. Like the group of children in Nobody Knows, the characters in Shoplifters are tied together in tenuous bonds and the exact relationships between these individuals is never defined until late into the film. The group, however, behaves as though they were family, assuming traditional roles of children, parents and grandparents and exhibiting genuine warmth towards one another.

As in Like Father, Like Son, Shoplifters mulls over the question of what makes a family and, while love is certainly a big part of it, writer-director Kore-eda’s answer is more materialist than you’d expect: a family is one that behaves like one. Much of the interpersonal relations in Shoplifters is embodied in particular gestures of the actors: Hatsue blowing a piece of hot gluten cake before feeding it to Yuri, Nobuyo claiming Aki’s attention by tapping her arm with a pair of chopsticks, a seated Osamu accommodating Shota between his legs, Nobuyo breaking a cob of boiled corn to feed a distracted Osamu, Aki overlapping her own hair over Yuki’s newly-cut hair to match their colours, Nobuyo scrubbing soap off Osamu’s back in the shower immediately after a death in the family. Several shots show the group lined up on one side looking at things off-screen: television, fireworks, waves at the beach. As is common in the director’s work, food, rather the act of consuming food, plays a crucial communal function: eating is what the “family” does when they are together. There’s also a touch of Kafka’s Metamorphosis here, with the family’s unity being contingent on the material value each individual brings to it.

Kore-eda pays equal attention to the group’s material living conditions. Contrary to popular depictions of poor households in cinema, the residence in Shoplifters is crammed with objects. Hatsue and company are clearly hoarders; their precarity doesn’t afford them to be otherwise. This space crunch makes for a spate of double-framed shots. Except for little Yuri, no one seems to fully fit the frame, their heads or limbs constantly cut off by the borders. Kore-eda makes interesting use of glass in moments conveying the emotional distance between characters. To emphasize how their relationship is regulated by material reality, he and cinematographer Kondo Ryuto constantly picture them with some object or the other intruding the image. When Aki questions Osamu about the lack of physical intimacy between him and Nobuyo in the house, they are each filmed with a piece of furniture in the foreground: Osamu need not spell out the impossibility of privacy in this house. The composition answers for him.

The actors, too, are mostly filmed in pairs or smaller groups. They make their way around the limited space of the house like pieces in a sliding puzzle, taking the place of others as they vacate their spots. Shota carves out a space of his own, living in a wardrobe like corner of the house with a partition. Divisions between living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom are all fuzzy. The only time the characters move freely is when they are at the riverfront, an empty parking lot or at the beach, their working environments and the shops they visit being similarly overridden with objects. In contrast, when the actors are filmed in separate shots with space around them, it is mostly during moments of crisis: when Nobuyo has to negotiate with a colleague over who gets to keep their job or when the group is interrogated by the police after they are discovered. The frontal way the actors are filmed in these scenes with free space around them amplifies our impression of their vulnerability.

How do these characters endear themselves to us despite being in moral twilight zone? Much of it owes to Kore-eda’s bag of writer’s tricks. For one, Hatsue, Osamu and Nobuyo save Yuri early on in the film, much before we get to know anything about them. The toddler’s helplessness without them makes the liberal viewer want the family to hold together. The group’s manifest love for Yuri therefore trumps every revelation and turn of events to follow. By withholding compromising information until they are of no import, the plot makes sure the viewer is invested in the family. Moreover, the flaws that Kore-eda ascribes the characters – shoplifting, stealing, blackmailing – are all socially-defined misdemeanours without universal validity, with ample extenuating circumstances. On the other hand, in their interaction with and behaviour towards others, the characters remain faultless.

That’s why the film starts falling apart when the group is caught. As each person is cross-examined by the police, signalling the dissolution of the group, the film’s muted sentimentalism comes to the fore. Kore-eda has always been a melodramatist, but there’s a certain degree of disingenuousness in the way Shoplifters uses social ills as buttons to turn the viewer on and off: mistreated child, abused wife, self-harming youth, negligent parents. The moments where film reaches outside of its stated premises (namely the scenes not involving the family), wanting to be portrait of an entire country in the grips of social alienation and economic hardship, don’t sit well considering the understated manner in which the rest of the film explores amorphous communal formations.

A glance at the lineups of the major film festivals reveals how strong a year 2013 was for cinema, though the most important films, as is usually the case, wouldn’t see the light of day until about a year or two later. Personally, even more than it did in 2012, cinema took a back seat for various reasons and I could see only a fraction of what I wanted to this year. (Favorite discoveries this year include Douglas Sirk, Harun Farocki, Ernst Lubitsch and Samuel Fuller.) This post lists my favorite films that premiered in 2013. Other films I really liked were Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra and Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope. Hope that 2014 will be a much better year on all fronts.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

 

The Wolf Of Wall StreetReligion is the opium of the people” wrote Karl Marx. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wall Street evangelist and stock market prophet, Jordan Belfort, might just agree, even though the kingdom of heaven he promises is very much of this world. Martin Scorsese’s loud, unhinged and debauched portrait of the rise, fall and resurrection of the loud, unhinged and debauched Belfort is the anti-Christ story of our age: a man who lets others suffer for his sake and for whom every object, experience and sensation in the world is worth commodifying. Scorsese’s presents late capitalism in all its rapaciousness and vulgarity, as a force which appropriates pretty much everything in its way, including criticism, to gain momentum, as a psychosexual space in which the id is given free rein and libido finds an outlet in the act of moneymaking and as a state of perpetual sensory stimulation where wealth accumulation for the sake of it becomes as addictive as sex and drugs. Rife with film references and genre games, The Wolf of Wall Street is as much a duet between Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and the topicality of Terence Winter’s adaptation as it is a soaring, endlessly fascinating example of commercial filmmaking that witnesses a veteran craftsman at the top of his game.

2. Stranger By The Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

 

Stranger By The LakeIrrationality is also at the heart of Alain Guiraudie’s simmering Stranger by the Lake, in which the object of fear is also the object of desire and where death and sex– la mort et la petite mort – are inseparably intertwined. Like Tsai Ming Liang’s quasi-phantom protagonists and their deserted habitats, the ghost-like characters in Guiraudie’s film haunt the lake by the day and vanish by night. And like Tsai’s cinema, Stranger employs a repetition of similar shots, spaces, movements and perspectives that both imparts it a structural simplicity and makes the gradual deviations from them even more pronounced. Marked by three distinct spaces – the woods, the beach and the parking lot – that trace the Freudian topology of the human psyche, the film presents a homo-normative world in which heterosexual presence is literally pushed to the margins, resulting in a level playing field divested of the problems of male gaze. More importantly, Stranger is perhaps the most visually accomplished film of the year and its handling of the interaction between Caucasian bodies and sunlight, foliage, twilight sky and water surface recalls the finest Impressionist works, especially those of Pierre-Auguste and Jean Renoir.

3. Stoker (Park Chan-wook, USA)

 

StokerAn extremely inspired piece of filmmaking, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant Stoker contains some of the most exciting cinematography, editing, sound and production design seen this year. Like Polanski’s movies, Park’s film is about the gradual induction and eventual decimation of Good by Evil. As in Stranger by the Lake, what is most seductive is also the most frightful. Fear and desire are enlaced together and embodied by the figure of Uncle Charlie, who is both an instrument of death and object of sexual desire. Stoker is evidently the result of synergy between a strongly authorial filmmaker who thinks primarily in terms of images and a rich, meaty script that draws as much from horror cinema and literature as it does from Hitchcock’s body of work. Park’s erotic, alluring economy of expression distinguishes itself from the self-congratulatory shorthand of ad filmmaking in the way it establishes subtler association between images and sounds in the film. Strikingly directed with strongly vertical compositional elements and an eerily accentuated sound palette, Stoker is a glorious return to form for Park, who is among the most remarkable visual stylists working today.

4. Shield Of Straw (Takashi Miike, Japan)

 

Shield Of StrawTakashi Miike’s juggernaut of a film, the proto-dystopian Shield of Straw, works off a premise familiar to Western movie audience: a group of cops have to transfer a pedophilic killer from the city of Fukuoka to the police headquarters in Tokyo. But there’s a problem. A multi-billionaire has announced a bounty on the guy so massive that it overshadows any fear of imprisonment. What’s more, the killer is such a despicable figure that any residual moral compunction about knocking him off is eliminated. The cops, as a result, have to protect him from not only the entire Japanese population but also themselves. A distant cousin to Scorsese’s film, Shield of Straw imagines a society where both moral and legal obstacles – the superegoist constructs of sin and crime – to Darwinian social-climbing are eliminated or, worse, justified. More impressive than the demonstration of how such an economic system becomes a perfect incubating ground for greed is its central existential dilemma, in which the obligation is on the individual not only to do the right thing, but to understand what the right thing is.

5. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia)

 

The Missing PictureHow do you represent history on film that was never documented visually? This is the question that to which Rithy Panh’s highly original, challenging and affecting work responds. Seeking primarily to be a document of life in the Khmer Rouge concentration camps, the film uses neither fictional recreation, which might end up graphic and exploitative, nor animation, which lacks the material presence that photographs offer, but hundreds of meticulously hand-made clay dolls that stand in for people who are to be represented, the concept being that clay would symbolically contain the remains of the camp victims. The resulting film places the audience at a distance from the horrors being described while always retaining a space for empathy. A densely detailed voiceover , on the other hand, recounts Panh’s personal experience at the camps, his lament about images that should or should not have been made, the way cinema had become a tool for totalitarian oppression and reflections on the wacky “Marx meets Rousseau” ideology of the Khmer Rouge that justified the camps. The outcome is a thoroughly thought-provoking essay film that has both the simplicity of a historical document and the ambitiousness of a deconstruction project.

6. In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß, Georgia)

 

In BloomOne of the regrettable things about Nana Ekvtimishvili’s and Simon Gross’ absolutely heartbreaking debut In Bloom is that it is being promoted and received merely as a coming-of-age film set against Soviet collapse. Though the film is certainly that, it is grossly unfair to pigeonhole a wrenching portrayal of female camaraderie on par with anything that Pedro Almodóvar has made into a convenient marketing category. Two 14-year old ‘women’ Eka and Natia, superbly played by debutants Lika Babulani and Mariam Bokeria, in the process of transitioning to adulthood, negotiate the social and cultural problems that plague a country in transition and quietly break patriarchal norms. Dysfunctional families, street violence and the war with Abkhazia are all definitely forces that shape the young women’s lives, but they reside on the periphery of the narrative, which, like the finest Italian Neorealist films, does not underestimate the power of individual agency while acknowledging social constructivism. There is as much truth in Natia acceding to be married to a guy she does not like as there is in Eka tossing the Chekhovian pistol into a lake.

7. Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France)

 

Mood IndigoTrust a wild music video director like Michel Gondry to come up with the zaniest, trippiest, most imaginative film of the year. Adapted from Boris Vian’s (apparently unfilmable) book L’écume des jours, Mood Indigo is escapist cinema in the truest sense of the term and presents a universe free from the laws of physics and logic. So you have the Pianocktail which concocts a drink based on the notes you play, a rubbery dance form where legs wobble and sway with the woozy jazz soundtrack, split-screen weather conditions, a doorbell that needs to be squashed every time it is set off, a star philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre discoursing from inside a gigantic pipe and a floor full of stenographers writing in chorus the film they are in. Mood Indigo’s gently satirical tale of downward mobility embodies the spirit of the best musicals, producing a strange, unwieldy yet alluring film that combines levity of form with the somberness of its story. Rivaling Terry Gilliam at his surreal best, Gondry’s ceaselessly inventive film is something of a descendant to Georges Méliès’ and Émile Cohl’s cinema of dreams.

8. A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers/Ben Russell, Estonia)

 

A Spell To Ward Off The DarknessBen Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s hypnotic tripartite work presents a single nameless character, played by musician Robert A A Lowe, living in three different social setups: as a part of a commune in Estonia, as a loner in the Finnish woods and as a member of a Norwegian Black Metal group. Specifically, the film shows the character in three states of being, in which the identity of the individual is subordinated to larger ones – the New Ageist assimilation of individual into the community, the Tarkovskian oneness with nature and the Black Metallic transcendence into the realm of the occult. These, on a more general level, are also the three avenues through which men create meaning in their lives – purposeful communal living, Thoreau-esque simple life in harmony with nature and creation of art. Although Spell’s significance arises from the interaction between its three parts, the individual segments themselves contain enthralling passages, especially the trancelike last section, made almost entirely out of the close-ups of performers’ faces and the discordant soundscape, transports the viewer to an experiential plane far removed from his mundane corporeality. It reinforces what André Bazin said of cinema: the Real can be arrived at only through artifice.

9. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

 

Like Father, Like SonA decidedly worn-out premise is at the origin of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son: two babies are swapped at the hospital at the time of birth and end up in different social strata. What could have been an exercise in broad comedy or, even worse, class stereotyping – though the film is a comedy and does double as a fine comedy of class-bound manners – is instead transformed into a piercing examination of parenthood, in which bringing up a child becomes a process of coming to terms with one’s own flaws and insecurities. Through turn of events the film undermines the perspective that men look at their offspring as a continuation of bloodline and women view them as the recipients of their care and affection, While, on the surface, the film seems to be merely a cautionary tale about the perils of spending too little time with your kid, on careful unraveling, it reveals itself as a much more delicate look at the tradeoffs one has to make in bringing up a child, at the question of where to interfere and where to let go.

10. Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg, USA)

 

Drinking BuddiesWith Drinking Buddies, the insanely prolific Joe Swanberg, who wrote and directed a modest three films in 2013 and acted in five, has made a work that might well situate him in the line of filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater and Hong Sang-soo in both its structural simplicity – marked by numerous small symmetries – and its fine observations on human relationships. The terrific ensemble is as much an author as Swanberg is and the actors evidently draw from personal experience. A naturalistic depiction of the lives of two friends at a brewery, the film treads the ever fuzzy boundary between friendship and romance. Like in the equally excellent Mexican comedy Club Sandwich (2013), Swanberg and his actors host a playful game of smudging the boundaries of sexual propriety by employing ambiguous actor positions, dialogue and physical interaction that fudges the accepted movie conventions about on-screen friendship and romance. If not anything else, Drinking Buddies is an embodiment of the shortcomings and apprehensions of the ‘millennial’ generation, for which the line between friendship and romance has become porous and tricky to negotiate.

 

Special mention: Young And Beautiful (François Ozon, France)