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Why ‘Shoplifters’ Director Hirokazu Kore-eda Is Cannes’ Favorite Japanese Auteur

Japanese film “Shoplifters” been described as a surprise winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. That may have more to do with the director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s steady output and six previous appearances in Cannes, rather than any slight against his latest humanist drama, which is both familiar and inventive.

Cannes jury president Cate Blanchett called it a difficult decision, but the right choice for Palme d’Or. “We were completely bowled over by ‘Shoplifters.’ How intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision,” Blanchett said.

“In a long career of incredible peaks, Hirokazu Kore-eda has delivered one of his best works. ‘Shoplifters’ is an incredible story that deals with familial bonds in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Eamon Bowles, president of Magnolia Films, which grabbed North American rights to the film a day before the closing ceremony.

And the film scored highly with reviewers. Variety’s Peter Debruge described “Shoplifters” as his favorite film in Cannes’ competition section. And from early on, it topped a poll of internationals critics fielded by Screen International.

“Shoplifters” follows a petty thief named Osamu who comes across a little girl who is struggling to survive in the freezing cold. He’s eventually able to convince his wife to take care of the child after learning of the hardships she faces. It’s a strain because of the family’s lack of money, but beyond having another mouth to feed, their bonds are tested after an unexpected event unearths devastating secrets.

Kore-eda started his career as a TV documentarian, working regularly at TV Man Union, before making his feature debut in 1995 with “Maborosi.” He has retained the small scale, intimacy of television ever since, while also operating with the thoughtful, unflashy style of Asian auteurs Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang.

The power of Kore-eda’s stories has nevertheless been widely appreciated. He has won over 40 awards for direction and screenwriting at major festivals, Asian prize shows and at home in Japan. His 2013 film “Like Father, Like Son” won the jury prize at Cannes — from a jury headed by Steven Spielberg — and remake rights were acquired by Dreamworks for Spielberg to direct.

A 2005 retrospective of his work held at the Vienna International Film Festival described Kore-eda as a “cinematographic tightrope walker who almost unnoticeably switches between fictitious and real territories, between narration and invention, the private and the public.”

Kore-eda’s recent “The Third Murder” was a flirtation with genre film-making and divided the critics. But “Shoplifters” seems a return to form. It marks “a mature and heart-wrenching return to his socially-conscious dramas,” according to Variety reviewer Maggie Lee. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich said that “’Shoplifters’ is the very best of the writer-director’s delicate, deceptive, and profoundly moving dramas about the forces that hold a family together (or don’t).”

Kore-eda wrote and edited “Shoplifters,” in addition to directing it. The film was produced by Kaoru Matsuzaki, Akihiko Yose, and Hijiri Taguchi. Executive producers are Takashi Ishihara, Tom Yoda, and Yasuhito Nakae.

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