The new Naomi Kawase film - which would have competed at last year's Cannes, were it not for that pesky virus - feels like a move, calculated or otherwise, in the direction of multiple Cannes prizewinner Hirokazu Kore-eda. True Mothers doesn't lack for recognisably Kawasean tropes and quirks: its title appears over a shot of unstilled water, and - throughout - a conscious effort is made to contrast the natural and man-made worlds. Yet these have been factored into almost exactly the kind of parenting parable with which Kore-eda has enjoyed great success over recent years. One slight but appreciable difference is that there's far greater external conflict here than Kore-eda has typically dramatised; Kawase has added something more tempestuous to her compatriot's gentle formula. Late on in the new film, there's a dreadful face slap, loaded with a violence Kore-eda has barely contemplated, and we open with a series of very prickly telephone calls, primed with passive-aggression. The first of these alerts wife and mother Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) to the fact her adopted son Asato (Reo Sato) has pushed a classmate off the jungle gym, and it prompts a measure of uncomfortable negotiation with the aggrieved mother of Asato's alleged victim. The second call - which follows in the wake of an extended flashback, showing how Satoko and husband Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) first took delivery of their charge - comes from Asato's biological mother Hikari, who wants the boy she gave birth to back. Or at least it's from someone who claims to be Hikari, an apparent deception the couple see through, having met the teenage Hikari (Aju Makita) at the adoption agency five years before. If the whole unfolds as more complex than the telemovie tug-of-love that synopsis might suggest - and far more complex, both narratively and emotionally, than anything Kawase has thus far attempted - it still boils down to that age-old question of nature versus nurture. An alternative title could be Like Mother, Like Son.
Again, though, there are formal differences in the approach. Kawase counters Kore-eda's signature minimalism with maximalism: her film runs 140 minutes, full of flashbacks that act like wind changes, ruffling this story and buffeting our sympathies back-and-forth between the parties of interest. Just on a scene-by-scene basis, Kawase forsakes Kore-eda's restrained, Ozu-like compositions in favour of screenfilling close-ups of loving, concerned faces; a crucial sex scene (crucial because the entire plot depends upon it) is rendered as a mosaic of abstract body parts, and one long sequence of backstory is filled in by wobbly home video. Your response may depend on how beholden you have been to Kore-eda's self-effacement. It wouldn't surprise me if his diehard fans found True Mothers a little on the boxy and indelicate side, removed of the exquisite shape that distinguished a Nobody Knows or After the Storm. Alternatively, if - like me - you sometimes find Kore-eda's films a touch too placid or overly manicured, you may well respond deeply to Kawase's stripping out of those reassuring parallels and symmetries, her headstrong determination to rub this kind of narrative against the grain. That comparative shapelessness means it's far harder to guess how this case will turn out: with even twenty minutes to go, it still wasn't clear to this viewer whether we were in for a happy or sad ending, such was the emotional turbulence Kawase kept kicking up. As it is, you'll have to sit through to the very end of the end credits for full closure, and I'm welling up again even as I think about it.
Mostly, this approach struck me as expansive and supremely generous. Kawase leans in these particular directions, and gets this close up, so as to generate only greater empathy for two women who've been left in awkward-to-abhorrent positions by the society they're living in. I've read Kawase dismissed as a kook in certain quarters - the kind of filmmaker only the Cannes selection committee could love - but True Mothers offers the most forceful rebuttal yet of that line: she knows exactly what she's doing here, and exactly the effects she's reaching for. She's become increasingly assured with actors, for one thing, eliciting work of rare depth not just from Nagasaku and Makita (who, to further underline the Kore-eda parallels, previously appeared in After the Storm and Shoplifters), but passing day players to boot: take the veteran cast as Hikari's boss at a newspaper delivery firm, whose straitlaced facade eventually descends to reveal his own secret sorrows. Kawase has a way of getting even minor characters to pour their hearts out when you least expect it, adding to the vast, Hokusai-scaled swells of emotion breaking over the screen at regular intervals. Maybe that's the exception some have taken to Kawase's work: that this is a filmography composed of 60-80% water. Yet this element only makes the films themselves more human, and here she rides those waves to arrive at a position the generally genial, comfortable-seeming Kore-eda hasn't yet. For this filmmaker, matters of the womb aren't just personal and emotional, they're also sociopolitical, and far more easily navigated when you have money and stability on your side. Maybe it needed a woman behind the camera to make that leap with this material; either way, True Mothers is the film that suggests Kawase may just be the Naruse to Kore-eda's New Ozu.
True Mothers is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.