Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son

This will be one of the most wrenching O. Henry-esque stories most viewers could ever hope to see. When an over-achieving father learns his six year old son was switched at birth, he assumes biology trumps their parental bond.  However, exchanging children proves to be far more complicated than he expects in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The driven Ryota Nonomiya has always excelled at everything, except maybe parenting.  He always assumed his gentle son Keita simply took after his passive wife, Midori.  However, when their maternity hospital announces the mistake (deliberately caused by a mentally disturbed nurse), everything suddenly makes sense to him.  Initially, he agrees to meet the Saikis, a big, sloppily affectionate working class family, along with his biological son, Ryusei, ostensibly adopting a wait-and-see attitude.  Yet, his wife can tell he has already made up his mind and is constitutionally incapable of protesting.

You might think Ryota Nonomiya and his severe father are vampires, considering their preoccupation with mere blood.  Of course, emotional bonds are not so easily severed. To make matters worse, he starts to wonder if the Saikis got the better end of the deal. Frankly, many parents will find it absolutely flummoxing the Nonomiyas could ever let go of a sweet-tempered moppet like Keita, but Kore-eda’s screenplay is examining and to an extent critiquing attitudes rooted in a very specific cultural context (forthcoming DreamWorks remake notwithstanding).  Without question, he advocates greater emphasis on nurture over nature, in just about every sense.

As his near namesake, young Keita Ninomiya is a major reason why Like Father is so massively poignant.  He is ridiculously cute, but also devastatingly effective in his big dramatic scenes. Likewise, despite Midori’s submissive nature (which might set some western viewers’ teeth on edge), Machiko Ono’s arrestingly sensitive performance is deeply affecting. In contrast, Masaharu Fukuyama is rigorously disciplined as the coolly detached Nonomiya, earning his payoff the hard way.  To their credit (and that of Kore-eda), the Saikis are also given real heft and dimension by Lily Franky and Yoko Maki, rather than serving as anti-Nonomiya strawmen.

Again, Kore-eda demonstrates a distinctly wise and forgiving sensibility for family drama as well as an unusual facility for directing children.  It might be a cliché, but it is hard not to dub the natural heir to Ozu based on Like Father and his previous films, like I Wish and Still Walking. A mature work from a contemporary master, Like Father, Like Son is highly recommended for general audiences when it opens this Friday (1/17) in New York at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.