Monday 4 December 2017

From the archive: "Like Father Like Son"

In his 2011 film I Wish, Hirokazu Kore-Eda – the filmmaker most observers regard as the closest the Japanese cinema has nowadays to the revered Yasujiro Ozu – appeared to be consciously attempting to preserve on celluloid a gentle, childlike innocence, much as the lost souls floating about the ether in Kore-Eda’s breakthrough feature After Life sought to preserve a cherished memory of earthly happiness.

Ozu himself went through a phase of working almost exclusively with children, you may remember, and Kore-Eda’s new film Like Father, Like Son extends the tradition further still. This is an elegant, quietly affecting take on the sort of baby-swap material one might encounter on the Lifetime channel or gawp at in a supermarket tabloid, and if its plot details are region-specific, the emotions it generates are universal.

In Japan, we learn, children heading to elementary school are subject to a blood test; one such procedure will reveal that Keita (Keita Ninomiya), the docile charge of a well-to-do architect and his wife, is in fact the offspring of a lowly shopkeeper, whose own child Ryusei (Shogen Whang) turns out to be the architect’s by birth, the result of a mix-up in the maternity ward.

This set-up sparks a series of quandaries any onlooking parent will be obliged to consider. Should the parents simply swap the children they’ve raised for six years, no harm, no foul? If you had the money, would you offer to raise both? If one party was unwilling to make the switch, might you be tempted to sue for sole custody – or would you concede that, after all this formative time, the bond between infant and guardian was now too strong to sever?

This nature-versus-nurture debate is played out over the course of a year, allowing us time to contrast the personalities of the fathers (the driven architect – who seems to be away from home an awful lot for someone so obsessed with the notion of family – and the lackadaisical shopkeeper) and those of their sons, and to mentally mix-and-match, feeling out who works best where; Kore-Eda favours a very Ozu-ish parallelism, his shot compositions offering neatly symmetrical variations on twos and fours.

One could easily damn Like Father, Like Son with the faint praise of the adjective “simple”, except that it’s clearly intended as a record of such simple pleasures, the kind our adult selves sometimes contrive to complicate and mess up. Kore-Eda uses his parallels to map out different ideas of what it might be to be a father or son (the women, though allowed vivid moments, are secondary), and without the heavy-handedness of, say, Richard Curtis in About Time.

He’s become increasingly adroit about casting child performers in ways that mean he barely has to direct them: whether independent or clingy, sharp-eyed or slightly dopey, Kore-Eda’s kids are always allowed to be themselves on screen – and of course it helps they’re adorable enough to make one want to take the next bullet train to Shinjuku and start frantically adopting.

You’re struck by how much of the film is simply, quietly observational – watching the boys splashing about at bathtime, making balloons, peering out of car windows at the giant pylons passing by – and the abiding lightness of touch is such that Kore-Eda can even muster viewer sympathies for the muddled nurse who engineered this fateful switch in the first place.

Depending on your temperament, you might want the film a little less gentle, but one suspects that in the year 2050, by which point a new, hyper-aggressive strain of capitalism will have turned our young into jaded shells hooked on hard drugs and harder porn, and the notion of good parenting will have been revised down to “shrugging less dismissively”, we will be grateful indeed for Kore-Eda’s achievements in this field: these most recent films of his may well stand as reminders that we were all this human, once upon a time.

(MovieMail, October 2013)

Like Father Like Son screens on Channel 4 tonight at 3.10am.

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