Hirokazu Kore-eda was never going to walk away from Cannes 2013 empty-handed. This year Steven Spielberg headed the jury, and if there’s any director who has demonstrated more skill at harnessing the remarkable depths of child actors than the director of ET, it’s Kore-eda. His latest took a well-deserved third place in the competition.
Building on his previous venture I Wish and taking its themes in darker directions, Kore-eda once again examines children torn apart by parents. In I Wish he looked at two brothers (played by real-life brothers) who opted to live with opposing parents after the breakup of the family. Here the idea is far more complex and distressing; a well-to-do family learn that their six-year-old son was swapped at birth with the son of a lazy hardware store owner, who with his wife now has two additional children they can barely afford to support.
Touching from the outset on class issues, parental pressure, family secrets and the eternal nature versus nurture debate, Like Father, Like Son is bursting at the seams with ideas. Played as tragicomedy, Kore-eda, doubling as usual as writer, looks at how the revelation tears both families apart, while pausing for gentle moments of sweetness and comedy, mostly provided by the sensational child actors.
Early on we see workaholic dad Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) attempt to help his son Keita who is struggling with his piano practice – their hands beautifully mirror each other on the keys. But they are not mirrors of one another in a biological sense, and once the truth is revealed to Ryota he becomes obsessed with the loss of a blood connection to his son, using it to explain “deficiencies” in his son’s character. Worse still, he blames his wife (Machiko Ono) for not showing the maternal intuition to know the infant in her arms was not her own.
The interactions between Ryota and his wife and the ad hoc parents of their actual child, Ryusei, provide some awkward moments of comedy and soul-searching, culminating in an astonishingly restrained scene of furious frustration timidly unleashed when Ryota suggests that he and his wife could afford to take custody of both boys. The Saiki family (father and mother played by Lily Franky and Yoko Maki respectively) may not be well-off like the Nonomiya clan, but they are good parents, paying as much attention to their children as possible. But while Keita is seduced, making art in class for both Ryota and his real dad, his dramatic foil Ryusei is less impressed with his new old parents.
Heart-strings are delicately clawed at when the Nonomiyas and Saikis experiment with “sleepovers”, essentially swaps to test the waters of how the children might cope in their “natural” surroundings. It is painful to see logic triumph over right, and yet the film steers clear of melodrama. There are no wild repercussions, and nothing as extreme as the conclusion of Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, just humans failing because they know no better.
Gorgeously shot in a series of mellow pans and tracking shots, Like Father, Like Son bleeds soul from the screen. Kore-eda, the last great humanist of Japanese cinema, has crafted a film so delicately judged that it manages to bring its audience to tears one moment and put them in thralls of laughter the next.
The performances are all stellar, especially those of the four children, but Fukuyama raises the film aloft, swinging naturally from anger to confusion, from despicable snobbery to painful self-realisation. He represents the worst and best of men and fathers and also, as we see in his interactions with his own parents, of sons.
Selecting a more upper-middle class setting than his previous family dramas, Kore-eda makes great use of technology in his film. While pampered Keita is hooked to his Nintendo Wii, Ryusei toys enthralled with an original Donkey Kong Game & Watch, a veritable antique hand-me-down in terms of gaming. A digital camera becomes evidence of a talent that any father could be proud of, no matter whose blood flows in their veins.
Ending on a bittersweet, ever-so-slightly ambiguous yet utterly dramatically satiating note, Kore-eda has produced another masterpiece, that could even rival Nobody Knows, Still Walking and even his opus After Life. It feels every one of its 120 minutes, but there is so much story and transformation here that it is impossible to fault cuts that have not been made.
This is an absorbing, heart-wrenching film that should impact hugely on anyone who has ever known a father. And that means you, and everyone you know.
(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)