Hirokazu Koreeda, which is a name I must type quickly before I forget how to spell it, has directed three previous movies that made it to our local indie outlet (as well as many that haven’t) and The Boy and I, liking all three and seeing the strong reviews for this one decided this was easily our best bet for viewing a filmed entertainment.
The other three Koreeda films we’ve seen (Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister and After The Storm) were all examinations of what it means to be “family”. Father was about two families discovering their six-year-old sons had been switched at birth. Sister was about three sisters whose overly generous father left them for another woman, and who meet their 13-year-old half-sister after he dies. Storm was about a down-on-his-luck detective/gambler/writer who couldn’t seem to reconcile his fierce desire to be a father (and husband) with his unwillingness to compromise or improve himself.
I liked these movies in about that order, so I was concerned that Koreeda might just be on a slow slide down (as often happens in Hollywood, it seems), but I (and the Boy) really liked this fascinating study of a family kept alive and together by government money, menial and dodgy jobs, and a healthy dose of shoplifting to augment their lifestyles.
The movie opens with middle-aged Shinoda (the improbably named Lily Franky of Storm) and his apparent son Shota in action, using their coordinated tactics to shoplift from a grocery store. (Shota forgets the shampoo as it turns out.) On the way home they spy a four-year-old girl picking through the garbage and they take her home and feed her. Shinoda and his wife or maybe sister Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) try to return the girl to her home, but when they get there her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend are having a violent quarrel and yelling loudly that they would rather not have the little girl around.
The little family (Shota, Shinoda and Chinatsu) live with a woman they call “grannie” and an attractive younger woman (perhaps an aunt) named Aki (Mayu Matsuoko, who was in some spin-offs of the original Japanese version of Little Forest) They take pity on the little girl against their better judgment (and on seeing marks on the little girl’s body). They decide to keep her, noting that her “real” family hasn’t even filed a missing person’s report. In fact, they don’t find out the girl’s real name until the police somehow get wind of her absence and accuse her parents of murdering her.
The whole household is kind of a mess. It isn’t obvious who’s related to whom—they all sort of act like grannie is their real grandmother, the two women like sisters, and the man like a father/son-and-brother-in-law. The first sense we get of something being not quite as it seems is Shinoda’s light badgering of Shota to call him “dad”. Meanwhile, dishonesty in the larger cultural sense abounds: Nobuyo works in a laundry facility of some sort and steals what she can from the clothes that come through. Shinoda has a construction job of some kind but he gets injured early on and we never see him work again even though, as we discover, there’s no worker’s comp for part-timers. Aki works in what I would describe as the live version of a adult webcam, entertaining customers through a two-way glass by at least partly disrobing and bouncing up and down. Even grannie’s got her scams.
They are kind to each other, however. Not perfect, but reasonably decent and forgiving human beings. And if this were a Hollywood movie you’d expect some message about the power of family, or near-family, or whatever they are, and some kind of Robin Hood/socialism subtext, but this movie has none of that. When it hits the fan, the family disintegrates pretty fast, survival being paramount. Motives are revealed, or implied, and they’re not necessarily pretty.
But here again, the movie avoids moralizing: Even disintegrated, it’s not at all clear that the participants were not better off together. It is clear that their relationships, however dysfunctional at the social level, are a great source of comfort and humanity to all involved. The movie teases a murderous backstory (showing pretty well that the cops are not particularly interested about what psychic havoc they might be wreaking) and also what might be a pretty dastardly crime against Shota. It basically dares you to try to come away with a neat package of opinions.
We liked the richness. We weren’t sure we liked the amount of loose ends. (Loose ends are funny: To few, and a movie feels glib. Too many, and it feels unfinished.) There were scenes that we weren’t sure why they were in there, but Koreeda is the kind of director who convinces you he knows what he’s doing, and whose movies you kinda wanna rewatch to make sure you got everything.
Not for everyone, obviously, but interesting.