“Manbiki Kazoku,” “A Family Affair”

Hirokazu Koreeda’s (是枝 裕和) “After the Storm,” the story of a divorced family having a reunion as a storm loomed large on the horizon, ran in competition at the Cannes Festival two years ago. “The Third Murder” was presented at the Berlinale last year, a rather twisted police procedural. And now, a “A family affair,” a film that’s centered on the intimate relations of the Shibatas, a small group of thieves in which women, men, and children live cut off from the outside world and maintain a paradoxical position, one that sees them excluded from society (their social microcosm is defined by the four walls of their small appartment) as much as dependent on it (robbing people, stealing from shops’ windows).

At the beginning of the film, Osamu Shibatu (Lily Franky) encourages his son Shota (Jyo Kairi) to lift some groceries to provide for the family’s food needs. Shota is, as we’ll learn later, not his natural son but a boy that was adopted by Osamu and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and sent off on shoplifting duties instead of school (“only kids who can’t study at home go to school,” he’s told). On returning from their shoplifting expedition, they run into a young abandoned girl and bring her home. It turns out she lives not far from them, but her parents have abused her. At first reluctant to take her in, Nobuyo eventually warms to the idea.

Osamu and Nobuyo and the children live in overcrowded conditions with their grandmother Hatsue (an excellent Kirin Kiki). Except, she isn’t really their grandmother either, although it doesn’t stop them living off her pension, even after her death. Add to this odd but likeable bunch sex worker Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and the gang is complete.

If the evolving identities of the different members of this improbable group hold little importance at the first to the viewer, what connects them, and that which is implied in the film by way of multiple angles of approach, is, emphatically, their marginality, their “it’s us against them” mindset. Hirozaku Kore-eda has shot a film that’s in line with his opus and recurring themes, ones in which barely a step—or, as is the case here, a few blocks—stands between the broken up family (the abandoned girl) and the one that’s reunited together (the Shibatas). Kore-eda knows how to do what he has always done, and “A family affair” is no exception: but here lies the problem with this new movie.“A family affair” seems well-aware of its prettiness, and will even sometimes have the reflex to rest too easily on its laurels, even if that means wearing thin any interest we may find, in the proverbial conflictual relationship between a father and his substitute son, in a young woman in between two ages who’s looking for companionship, or from the funny cohabitation with the grandmother, who dotes over the family as much as annoys everybody. From this standpoint, A family affair harks back to “Like father, like son” or After the storm” in its raw surveying of inter-family relations, which also makes any comparison to the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu fairly easy.

One element that surprised me in “A Family Affair”: members of the Shibata family are reflected in a corner of the living-room where they sit, by a mirror or a window. Beyond the staging effect that enlarges the confined space of the Shibata household without physically freeing the characters from their space, the device seems to imply that these people have something to hide. Their double-personality, emphasized on the screen, waiting to be unveiled. It’s one example, among few others, of the good (and simple) devices that make this new Kore-eda, if not a total surprise, a likeable movie.

Film comes out on Friday, November 23rd

This film received the Palme D’Or at the 2018 Cannes Festival (see our Cannes Festival coverage)

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