[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.

The Jigsaw Called Past

A Paradox Of Memory

We always have that “one foreign film” to top it all, don’t we? Continuing the tradition of extraordinary films like The Lives of Others (2006)4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), this year we have an Israeli flick Waltz with Bashir. Already a winner of the Golden Globe for the best foreign film of the year, the film is all set to make it big at the Academy Awards late next month. Director Folman dedicated the Golden Globe to all the babies that were born during the production of the film and desired that when they watched the film in the future, they should think of the film as an ancient video game. And indeed, Waltz with Bashir is a sincere attempt to come to terms with the mistakes of the past.

Waltz with Bashir takes place 20 years after the “purging” operations of the Israeli army in Lebanon. Ron is one of the soldiers in the war who is leading a peaceful life as a filmmaker now. One gloomy night, after he hears about the strange dream that haunts his friend, Ron decides to dig up his past. This takes him to various places across the globe as he gradually recovers his memories of the fateful war. There is considerable romance in the events of the war, with Apocalypse Now – like celebrations of destruction. Men come, men go; No one recognizes the other completely, but each one has a story to tell. Each one has a version of the war. We are presented many POVs as Ron continues inquiring his role in the war. He isn’t happy about what he is discovering. But the thirst for truth keeps him going.

Waltz with Bashir presents a great paradox now. One that all of us carry with us in one form or the other. One that uniquely characterizes the human intelligence. A paradox of memory. When you want to forget something, your mind does not let you. It keeps coming back to haunt you until you confront it for good. And when you want to remember something desperately, the same memory starts playing tricks with you. It cooks up some mutated form of the past combining elements of truth and fantasy. Ron seems happy with his filmmaking business until the inevitable shadow called past catches up with him. He realizes the need to remember. But no one lets him – neither his own mind nor his friends’. Early on, Ron’s psychologist friend tells him of a memory experiment where people were found to accept small deviations from reality as reality itself. Similarly, everyone seems to have settled into some form of comfortable reality in order to barely escape from the horrors of the past and yet remember their years in the war. Unwilling to strike a balance between the need to document and the need to forget, Ron decides that he has to know what happened and not speculate.

It is but natural to be reminded of the previous year’s fantastic film Persepolis, for both employ animation to address issues of very high importance. Persepolis, using its childlike animation effectively along with its monochrome, presented one girl’s quest for identity and her abstraction of the ever-changing world. Marjane’s fantasies of a fairy-tale childhood are slowly corrupt by the knowledge of the harsh realities of the war-torn world. The ever-unsafe world prevents her from carrying on with her illusions of undisturbed happiness. Waltz with Bashir, on the other hand, is an account of one man’s struggle to recollect the past. It sort of reverses the structure of Persepolis and presents us a man who attempts to recall reality exactly as it happened. Ron does not want to concoct a “safe version” of reality that remains tough enough to reflect truth but comfortable enough to be complacent about what happened. In essence, Waltz with Bashir asks us to confront reality– without any pretense and escapism – and get over with it once and for all. And this, in my opinion, is the film’s greatest success.

One can’t entirely say that the film does not take sides. True, it is told from an Israeli point of view and yet comments on the atrocities done towards the Palestine refugees in Lebanon, but the Lebanese evangelists won’t be happy with the depiction of the massacre. However, this can not be considered a blatant caricaturing of them. Waltz with Bashir takes just a single event from the war – the refugee camp massacres at Sabra and Shatila – and questions the appropriateness of that event alone. Yes, it does take a stand there and it does condemn the way things unfolded on that dreadful day. But that’s about it. It does not extrapolate the incident to judge the present political policies of either country or even question the motives of the war that it depicts. It is as if the film isolates the lone event in order to denote the sheer enormity of it all and to show how such unwarranted acts of violence have a deep impact on the psyche of an individual and of a nation.

I can’t complain on the technical grounds either. The animated characters are deliberately out of sync with their environment, which gives the film a kind of surrealism that is in tone with Ron’s recurring dream. The dubbing is spontaneous with even mistakes finding their way into the film. The narrative proceeds non-linearly never once going over the head. But these are just the secondary reasons that make the film stand apart. In an age which is plagued by over-sensitivity towards issues such as racism, communalism and war, films such as Waltz with Bashir (and the surprise winner Gran Torino (2008) appeal for an acceptance of these issues as it is and to deal with them without much fuss. And that is a reason enough for me to cast my vote for Waltz with Bashir.