Film Review: Like Father, Like Son

Parents learn that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth in a searing drama from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Few directors are as adept with children as Japan's Hirokazu Kore-eda. In Like Father, Like Son he elicits a stunningly naturalistic performance from Keita Ninomiya, who plays the six-year-old son of well-to-do parents. In a detached, almost clinical style, the movie reaches troubling conclusions about what it means to be a parent. But it is Keita's quiet, determined personality that makes the strongest impression here.

Kore-eda's screenplay starts from real-life incidents in which babies were switched at birth in hospitals. Adopting a matter-of-fact tone, he examines the legal and social consequences of a case involving architect Ryota Nonomiya (Fukuyama Masaharu), his wife Midori (Ono Machiko), and their son Keita.

A workaholic, Ryota is also a stern disciplinarian, yet leaves most of the burden of raising Keita to the mild-mannered Midori. Keita copes with a demanding school schedule, but never does quite well enough to satisfy his father.

The news that Keita isn't their biological child raises perplexing issues. Keita's real parents, Yukari Saiki (Maki Yoko) and his wife Yudai (Lily Franky), run a small appliance shop in a rundown neighborhood while raising three children. Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), their eldest, is actually the Nonomiyas' son.

Kore-eda gradually expands the story, adding lawyers, teachers, hospital officials, and Ryota's father and Midori's mother. They offer pointed opinions about parenting, like, "For horses and humans, it's all about bloodlines." Much of Kore-eda's dialogue is uncharacteristically blunt, and too many of his scenes feel like textbook examples from a social experiment.

Still, Like Father, Like Son raises questions no one can answer. How can Midori stop loving a child she has raised for six years? How can Ryota accept someone else's son as his own? How will Keita respond to being abandoned by his parents? The Nonomiyas and the Saikis both try to adjust to their changed circumstances, but the weight of their decisions becomes unbearable.

Kore-eda plays these scenes out in an almost documentary fashion, trusting in his performers rather than resorting to sentimental tactics. The camera moves calmly, pinning the characters in carefully composed frames. Kore-eda's editing is deliberate but also non-judgmental. Even the soundtrack, with its passages from Bach's "Goldberg Variations," appeals more to the intellect than to emotions.

Like Father, Like Son might seem too deliberate or challenging for mainstream viewers, but those willing to adjust to Kore-eda's approach will be rewarded by a movie that delves deeply into some of the central issues in our society. (And if you can't, DreamWorks bought the rights for an English-language version. It will be fascinating to see Hollywood's take on the subject.) Like Father, Like Son won the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and both best picture and best director at December's Asia-Pacific Festival.