Like Father, Like Son is a film almost guaranteed to have gone down well with this year’s head of the In Competition jury, Steven Spielberg, what with its shared focus on riveting drama concerning an increasingly destabilising family unit. For all of the visual pizzazz of Spielberg’s blockbusters, his films almost always return to matters of the family, and as such, it’s easy to see how the latest offering from I Wish director Kore-ada Hirokazu would very much appeal to his sensibilities if not also those of the rest of the jury.
Nonoyima and Midori are a certifiably middle-upper class couple who have provided a life of privelige for their 6-year-old son, Keita. However, early on they are summoned to the hospital in which he was born and informed that, in fact, Keita is not their son; he was somehow switched with another at birth. They soon enough meet the parents of the other child, the Saikis, who have in effect been raising their biological son for the last 6 years. Inevitably, the question of what to do rears its head: maintain the status quo, or return the sons to their rightful parents?
While it pitches itself early on as an earnest drama, Like Father, Like Son in fact emerges to become something else entirely, a richly affecting, uproariously funny family film boasting just enough edge to distinguish itself in a usually crowded field (both in terms of genre and the In Competition line-up itself). Once the bombshell drops, Hirokazu leaps off to examine the importance we place almost universally in society upon blood ties, while broaching the fascinating nature vs. nurture debate.
Are the two boys the way they are by way of biological design, or how they were raised by their parents? Social circumstances, of course, are unavoidable; Keita was born — or rather, swapped — into a life where he wanted for nothing, whereas Ryusei was raised in a more humble, down-to-Earth blue collar environment, in which piano lessons and expensive, fresh meat dinners were not even a consideration.
One of the film’s more potent observations is in terms of class mobility, and how Keita finds it relatively easy to adjust to a less-blessed life, whereas Ryusei struggles with the provisios that an uncharacteristically highfalutin lifestyle entails. Ryusei’s parents take Keita under their wing with relative ease, whereas Keita’s parents struggle with Ryusei’s sloppy eating habits, video game obsession and apathy towards playing the piano.
While the contrast between the cold, independence-promoting disconnect of Keita’s parents and the familial warmth of Ryuesei’s might at first seem a little too simplistic, Hirokazu captures the complexity of the central issue supremely well. It is Keita’s father who struggles with the scenario most, torn between the six years he has spent with Keita and the inevitable biological ties that bind him to Ryusei. As he has to be reminded at one point, it is who raises you that appears to matter most to most people.
The director also captures the humble essence of Japanese culture, as the mothers are taken to task for failing to recognise that the children were not their own, before an unexpected twist blindsides audiences and introduces another fascinating plot strand. While it might stray from the cutesy familial drama for a time as a result, what remains constant throughout the film is its innate sweetness. We care about the characters, not just the children but the adults too, and when the issue impinges upon their marriages, it is devastating to behold.
The resolution is never in doubt and clearly telegraphed early on, though this is not to the film’s detriment when the journey getting there is so full of joy, humor and dramatic potency. Hirokazu has an ear for scripting youth-orientated dialogue in a way that makes it feel improvised, and as for the kids themselves, they are simply delightful, cute yet also insightful in a way that only children ever are.
Like Father Like Son manages a deeply felt engagement with a thorny problem, and with the right marketing could be one of the year’s big art house hits. With a broadly entertaining appeal, who’s to say that this one couldn’t go all the way to the Academy Awards’ Foreign Film quintet? As for the Palme, with a jury president whose work is so attuned to notions of the family, consider its chances very strong indeed.
The Upside: Hirokazu directs a difficult scenario with sensitivity, but also plenty of mirth, emotional warmth and dramatic aplomb. As a result, it is likely to appeal to broader cinema audiences as well as cineastes.
The Downside: Some may find that the predictability holds back any emotional engagement, and if you’re not a fan of children, the cuteness will probably seem rather cloying.
On the Side: Hirokazu has admitted that his 2008 film, Still Walking, was based on his own family.