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Light and airy in spite of its rather shocking subject, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son almost facetiously examines the agony of two families who are informed that their 6-year-old boys were switched at birth. From Gilbert and Sullivan to Desperate Housewives, the changeling plot has always held a morbid, slightly absurd fascination. Here it’s a powerful premise but one that practically precludes empathy, and viewers may be justifiably skeptical that four parents, at least three of whom seem normal, would ever consider swapping children they had nurtured that long. Though it’s packed with adorable tykes and more than a few strong scenes, even Kore-eda fans may feel a let-down with a lovely film that makes little emotional connection. Still the wit and charm are there and the filming is impeccable, full of wry humor underlining a slightly surreal atmosphere.
Perhaps the film is best viewed as an extreme test of what makes a man feel like the father of a child. Nonomiya Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu) and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) are card-carrying yuppies whose moneyed lifestyle includes a muted green apartment high over Tokyo and a wide-eyed little son named Keita, already being groomed for the fast track. In a funny but eyebrow-raising opener, he brazenly lies to a school examiner in front of his approving parents, having been taught how to please in cram school.
For his part, Ryota works so hard climbing the ladder at his corporate job he has little time for his family. Still everything seems perfect in their life, with smiling Midori fixing late dinners and Keita learning to play piano scales, when the hospital calls.
The next scene brings the Nonomiyas together with the Saiki family in the provincial hospital where their children were born. The Saikis are poor bumpkins living outside the city although, as we will learn, they’re loving, laid-back parents who fly kites and take baths with their three small kids. It takes the couples several meetings to size up their natural offspring. Kore-eda’s screenplay gently pokes fun at their uncertainties and pretensions, Ryota’s snobbishness and the other father Yukari’s (Maki Yoko) allergy to work and hope to cash in with a lawsuit against the hospital. Little by little the unthinkable happens, and they start exchanging sons on the weekend.
Unlike the director’s delightful I Wish, the kids are not at the center of the story and play only supporting roles, which call for them to be cute and precocious and never so much as whimper over being treated like chattel or pets. As Mrs. Saiki (Lily Franky) famously protests, “I couldn’t switch a pet, either!” shortly before doing just that with her son. Both mothers seem amazingly unable to assert themselves with their husbands, and for that reason less interesting as characters.
Gradually things turn serious and the focus shifts to Ryota, played by the tall, aristocratic-looking singer-turned-actor Fukuyama as an emotional cripple whose dawning feelings of fatherhood provide the story with a happy, if still very open, ending. In a key scene he and his brother, in suits and ties and carrying identical umbrellas, pay on a formal visit on their aging father and his wife, who raised them when their real mother left. The cranky old man warns Ryota to switch sons before it’s too late, because blood is everything in humans and horses. Ryota adopts this as his mantra, and only much later (and a bit abruptly) gets misty-eyed over the child he’s given away.
The film is a longish but well-edited two hours, held together by cheerful lighting and contrasting interiors that emphasize the great divide between the haves and have-nots in Japanese society.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 17, 2013.
Production company: Film, Inc.
Cast: Fukuyama Masaharu, Ono Machiko, Maki Yoko, Lily Franky
Director: Kore-Eda Hirokazu
Screenwriter: Kore-Eda Hirokazu
Producers: Kameyama Chihiro, Hatanaka Tatsuro, Tom Yoda
Director of photography: Takimoto Mikiya
Production designer: Mitsumatsu Keiko
Editor: Kore-Eda Hirokazu
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch, Gaga
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