Friday, May 31, 2013

Like Father Like Son

Hirokazu Kore-eda has returned to Cannes with another gentle and warm-hearted family drama in that classic Japanese manner that he has been gravitating towards in recent movies like Still Walking (2008) and I Wish (2011). It is a very decent piece of work, although not as distinctive as those two previous movies, not quite as finely observed and frankly a little schematic and formulaic, with life-lessons being learnt by the obvious people. It does however have charm and abundant human sympathy.

Like Father, Like Son is a "baby-swap" drama: go-getting salaryman Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his sleek wife Midori (Machiko Ono) live in a perfect modern house and have a little 6-year-old boy — their only child — whom they push hard educationally. Then the hospital sends the devastating news that their baby was mixed up six years ago with the child now being raised by another family, with other siblings: Yudai (Franky Lily), an amiable semi-slob who works behind the counter of a shop and his sensible wife Yukari (Yoko Maki). The slow, agonising diplomatic process of meetings between the families begins, and Ryota hires a hotshot lawyer, ostensibly so that all four can unite to sue the hospital. But arrogant Ryota has an awful secret plan: snobbishly aghast at where his biological boy is being raised, and unwilling to relinquish the one he has naturally come to love, he is scheming somehow to prove legally that Yudai and Yukari are unfit parents so that he can take legal charge of both boys — or to make them a huge cash offer to let their son go to him.

Kore-eda has said that he was inspired by his own recent experience of fatherhood to write and direct this film and by the "baby-swap" cases in Japan in the 1960s. I wonder if he was not also inspired by Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, whose basic plot resembles this movie in a couple of key particulars. Nature versus nurture is the obvious theme, and this movie suggests that nature is far less important than we might think.

There is a doppelgänger theme, interestingly like that of his earlier film I Wish, in which two brothers were being raised in different households: with the amiable slacker dad and hardworking worrier mum. But there was complexity in that story, and no reassurance as to which parent has got it right about life and which of them is wrong. In this film it is quite plain: Ryota should loosen up, and easy-going, goofy Yudai is the life-affirming good guy. The movie tracks Ryota's crisis, and assumes that Yudai doesn't and needn't change. There is something more challenging in its depiction of Midori, who feels guilty that her boy is an only child with no sibling-playmates, and wonders if allowing the other family to take him is the right thing to do. But then what right has she to inflict only-child loneliness on the boy they're getting in return?

Kore-eda has chosen a subject with no lack of precedents, notably in Etienne Chatillez’s “Life Is a Long, Quiet River” (1988). Yet despite its well-worn elements, “Like Father, Like Son” is still thematically of a piece with the helmer’s own films dealing with the abandonment or separation of children, “Nobody Knows” (2004) and “I Wish” (2011). As usual, the director retains his controlled style even as he moves toward a more traditional narrative mode.

The film begins with a stiff, decorous school entrance interview, during which well-groomed 6-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya) relates how his father, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), taught him to fly a kite on a family camping trip. One finds out later that it was a lie drilled into the boy in preparation for the interview, and that Ryota is a driven architect who never spends time with his family. Not that he doesn’t love his docile, mousy wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), or Keita, for whom he has planned a successful future and a rigid, demanding activity sheet to help get him there.

But the Nonomiyas’ lives are turned upside down when they learn that the hospital where Midori gave birth mistakenly switched infants, so Keita actually belongs to suburban appliance storeowners Yudai and Yukari Saiki (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki) Saiki, who have unwittingly raised the Nonomiyas’ son, Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), as their own. The two families arrange gatherings for their children to mingle, and begin a trial system of exchanging the boys on weekends.

This gives rise to some gently ironic contrasts between the bourgeois Nonomiyas’ elegant but finicky lifestyle and the Saikis’ unkempt, anything-goes existence. But rather than aiming for Chatillez’s savage social satire, the class differences here are merely a natural extension of the two couples’ respectively uptight and easygoing personalities. Similarly, Kore-eda doesn’t accentuate the boys’ differences so much as show how quickly children adapt to their surroundings, as seen in some marvelously sweet scenes in which the timid, well-behaved Keita blends in with his carefree Saiki siblings and bonds with his affectionate, playful biological father, Yudai, to Ryota’s mild chagrin.

Like Father, Like Son, the latest bittersweet drama from Japanese writer-director Kore-eda Hirokazu, may be utterly conventional in some ways, but its surging emotional power eventually proves too overwhelming to deny. We probably don’t need another film about a workaholic father who learns to stop and smell the roses, but when it’s handled as effortlessly as Kore-eda does here, you remember that storytelling conventions exist for a reason: In the right hands, they can still work wonderfully.

The film stars actor (and Japanese pop star) Fukuyama Masaharu as Ryota, who lives with his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) in a posh high-rise with their 6-year-old son, Keita. Because of their lush condo’s sterile environment and Ryota’s haughty demeanor, we sense that this is a man who needs to understand that making money isn’t everything. That lesson comes in an unexpected form, however: The hospital that delivered Keita reveals that they accidentally gave them the wrong boy, and that their child has been living with a working-class family led by parents Maki Yoko and Lily Franky. It’s a shocking development for all involved, but for Ryota it also creates a strange dichotomy of emotions. On one hand, he guiltily feels a sense of validation that the underachieving Keita wasn’t really his boy. On the other, there’s a great deal of trepidation about how best to negotiate the difficult decisions concerning what to do next with the two kids.

Kore-eda has often focused on families and children in his work, never more piercingly than with his 2004 drama Nobody Knows, which tracked a group of siblings who have to survive on their own after their mother abandons them. At first, Like Father, Like Son seems like it might revolve around the two boys, but it soon becomes apparent that Kore-eda has crafted this tale as a way to force Ryota to examine his life. Beyond the impossibility of facing this shocking turn of events, he also has to contend with a family whose gregarious, free-wheeling attitude runs counter to his stoic, focused personality. (As much as he wants his rightful son returned to him, Ryota’s snobbish attitude makes him resistant to hand over Keita to parents he considers beneath him socially and intellectually.)

The bookies probably still have Asghar Fahadi’s The Past ahead in the race for the Palme d’Or. But the warm audience response given to the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-Eda suggests that the Japanese wizard may stand a sporting chance of taking home the trophy on Sunday week. The film is not always subtle. Indeed, there is nothing in the structure or tone to dispel fears of a lachrymose Hollywood remake. But it manages to be properly sad in a way that only Japanese film-makers manage.

Like Father Like Son follows the story of two couples who, when their children are starting elementary school, discover that the tykes were switched shortly after their birth. Contact is made and they face up to an impossible moral quandary: do they hold on to the boys they have nurtured or switch the children and attempt to reboot family life?

In less careful hands, the crude binary contrast between families would seem unbearable. Ryota and Midori are well-off, buttoned-up and blinkered in their ambitions. Yukari and Yudai are free-spirited, lower middle-class and generous with emotion. At first Ryota, a businessman who has made little time for his child, plots furiously to grab hold of both children. He sniffs at the other family’s apparent recklessness. But, once the decision has been made, he begins to understand the flaws in his outlook.

Like Father, Like Son is a film almost guaranteed to have gone down well with this year’s head of the In Competition jury, Steven Spielberg, what with its shared focus on riveting drama concerning an increasingly destabilising family unit. For all of the visual pizzazz of Spielberg’s blockbusters, his films almost always return to matters of the family, and as such, it’s easy to see how the latest offering from I Wish director Kore-ada Hirokazu would very much appeal to his sensibilities if not also those of the rest of the jury.

Nonoyima and Midori are a certifiably middle-upper class couple who have provided a life of privelige for their 6-year-old son, Keita. However, early on they are summoned to the hospital in which he was born and informed that, in fact, Keita is not their son; he was somehow switched with another at birth. They soon enough meet the parents of the other child, the Saikis, who have in effect been raising their biological son for the last 6 years. Inevitably, the question of what to do rears its head: maintain the status quo, or return the sons to their rightful parents?

While it pitches itself early on as an earnest drama, Like Father, Like Son in fact emerges to become something else entirely, a richly affecting, uproariously funny family film boasting just enough edge to distinguish itself in a usually crowded field (both in terms of genre and the In Competition line-up itself). Once the bombshell drops, Hirokazu leaps off to examine the importance we place almost universally in society upon blood ties, while broaching the fascinating nature vs. nurture debate.

Are the two boys the way they are by way of biological design, or how they were raised by their parents? Social circumstances, of course, are unavoidable; Keita was born — or rather, swapped — into a life where he wanted for nothing, whereas Ryusei was raised in a more humble, down-to-Earth blue collar environment, in which piano lessons and expensive, fresh meat dinners were not even a consideration.

One of the film’s more potent observations is in terms of class mobility, and how Keita finds it relatively easy to adjust to a less-blessed life, whereas Ryusei struggles with the provisios that an uncharacteristically highfalutin lifestyle entails. Ryusei’s parents take Keita under their wing with relative ease, whereas Keita’s parents struggle with Ryusei’s sloppy eating habits, video game obsession and apathy towards playing the piano.

One of the great themes of Japanese cinema, and perhaps the greatest, is family: particularly our place within it, and its within us. More than 80 years have passed since Yasujiro Ozu first set his camera on a tripod, lowered its legs slightly and made I Was Born, But…, and you might well assume that by now the subject would be pretty well exhausted. But Hirokazu Kore-eda has found a fresh perspective on this durable theme, and he surges into it like a child playing inside a duvet cover, feeling his way right to the corners.

And playfulness is the prevailing spirit of the piece: despite the film’s unhappy premise, watching Like Father, Like Son feels like paddling in a clear, sunlit spring. Kore-eda’s film is about two families who discover that their six-year-old boys were switched at birth, and it centres on one of the fathers; a busy architect called Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukushima) who lives with his wife Midori (Machika Ono) and their polite and neatly brushed six-year-old son Keita. Their home is a well-appointed Tokyo apartment that has had the life interior-designed out of it, and Ryota works long hours to pay for it.

When Keita registers for primary school, a blood test reveals that he is not in fact the Nonomiyas’ child, and further inquiry reveals that their biological son has been living across town with a Mr and Mrs Saiki, who own a not-all-that-busy electrician’s shop. His name is Ryusei, and the hospital suggests that the two families get to know one another and, over a period of 12 months, exchange one boy for the other.

Kore-eda’s film screened at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday evening. Not only is it the best picture to be shown in competition so far, it also prompted the loudest reactions yet from this habitually noisy crowd: rippling laughter throughout, sustained applause at the close, and a steady refrain of goosey honks as attendees cleared their tear-streaming noses.

No comments:

Post a Comment