Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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