Oct 2, 2013

NYFF 2013: Like Father, Like Son

Hirokasu Kore-eda's devastatingly tender film centers on an unthinkable family nightmare. Imagine you get a call one day that informs you that the 6-year old boy you have raised all his life was switched at birth at the hospital. Your son is not your son. Your actual son, as defined by blood lines, is living with a different family.
You think your kid takes after you or his mother, in his personality and his quirks. But Kore-eda shows that the kids are not so much products of genes but of their family lives, and that this harks back generations, just like genes do. If your dad was stern and absent, chances are that you will be too. Is this the fault of genes or behavior, or both? The director does not intend to preach an easy answer. He unspools his tale with such careful, heartbreaking observation that the audience, like the parents in the film, goes through every human emotion in the space of two hours.
The only way I can describe this movie is as an infinite, rippling spiral of love and loss. What do you do? The instinctive reaction is to leave things as they are for the sake of everyone involved, particularly the children, since everyone seems happy. But the idea of blood being thicker than water still holds powerful sway in people's minds, and perhaps more so in a traditional culture like Japan.
To compound the deepening complexity of the matter, one of the boys, the elfin Keita, is the single child of an affluent young couple in a big city, whereas the other one is  brother to two feisty tots and the son of a goofy, struggling electrician in a small town. The contrasts in their lives are enormous.
The movie starts with tiny Keita being grilled by two stern adults for his entrance exam to a prestigious school. Keita is obedient to a fault, takes piano lessons, and is calm and polite, and you don't notice he leads a boring, circumscribed life until you meet the other kid, whose days are an endless string of carefree, raucous play.
We are outraged at the immediate assumption by the decision makers (the affluent dad, the hospital functionaries, lawyers - all men) that the kid who was raised poor will benefit from switching back to his blood parents, that he will profit from every opportunity of advancement. And that returning the kids to their rightful owners will somehow make things right. But it is Keita who has more to gain: he is to nestle in a happy, unstructured life of modest means; rich in devotion to his present childhood, not to his future success. Meanwhile, the other boy is to live in a spiffy condo with all the warmth of a hotel room.
Kore-eda does not use a parallel structure. He focuses on Keita's dad, an ambitious workaholic with perhaps antiquated notions of blood and duty, and the product of an unhappy childhood. Through his ordeal, which he encumbers and worsens for everybody, every step of the way, we get a meticulous view of the contrasts of family life in Japan. At times you want to strangle him, but Kore-eda makes him empathetic precisely by showing him as a product of nurture as well. He is trying, as all parents, to be a good dad in the way he knows best, which is what he learned from childhood.
Kore-eda elicits incredibly natural performances from the wonderful children in the movie and spectacular acting from the adults. Masterful writing, direction and command of tone, which weaves warmth, gentle humor, quiet defiance, and unimaginable irony and despair, won this film the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. No surprise: Steven Spielberg was president of the jury. Dreamworks is already working on a remake. I'll be damned if they get it right. Like Father, Like Son is not to be missed. Just bring a crate of tissues.

In memory of my dear Aunt Dora, devoted reader of this blog, who was passionate about movies, and would have loved this one.

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