Monday, February 17, 2014

New Film: Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Reaffirming its writer-director as one of the contemporary screen's most effective makers of sentimental, family-centered melodrama, to damn with faint praise in any context other than the filmmaker's country of origin or his own, exceptional body of work, Kore-eda Hirokazu's Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013) displays the same gentleness and narrative restraint that has long proven a hallmark of the Japanese auteur's corpus. Elliptical and delicate in its presentation of its ripped-from-the-headlines-style shocker - six years earlier, two newborn boys are switched at birth - Kore-eda's Cannes prize-winning, Ozuesque latest emerges above all as a subtle, yet sharp (in the manner of the great master) critique of historical Japanese notions of parent- and especially father-hood.

The most emotionally satisfying solution to the mix-up, at least to the distant observer - the situation remaining status-quo, with the Nonomiya and Saiki families raising their 'adopted' children, rather than their long-separated blood off-spring - is rejected quickly by the professionally driven and rather successful Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu). Indeed, in keeping with what we are told is the long-held habit of the Japanese people, from an era when such mix-ups were commonplace, Fukuyama's lead defaults to blood, a decision that is made that much easier for Ryota by his adopted son Keita's (Ninomiya Keita, in one of the Nobody Knows and I Wish director's uniformly accomplished child performances) comparative lack of natural ability. In the end, Like Father, Like Son is about Ryota's struggle to overcome the idiom named in the English title: he must at once resist the cold, disinterested parenting style of his own father, and at the same time become the father that he has failed to be, both to his biological offspring Ryusei (Hwang Shôgen) and more importantly, to the loving, loyal (and impossibly cute) Keita. Ryota, in other words, must reject the less and less culturally valid economic and masculine ideal that he has spent his life pursuing.

The Saiki family, on the other hand, provides an alternative to the career-oriented Nonomiya's and their sterile urban bourgeois existence. Alternate patriarch Yudai (Furankî Rirî) in particular offers a point of contrast in his lax attitudes toward work - why do today what can be put off to tomorrow? - and his more nurturing, hands-on style of parenting. Though the buffoonish and occasionally greedy Yudai is himself no unambiguous ideal, as his wife Yukari (Maki Yôko) makes abundantly clear time and again, his virtues do serve to highlight Ryota's archly Japanese shortcomings. Indeed, for all Yukari's faults and for the Saiki's far more modest circumstances in general, their larger nuclear family does seem to work in a manner that the reconfigured, biological Nonomiya's fail to. Nurture most certainly rules out over nature and blood in Like Father, Like Son's cinema of reassessed cultural priorities.

Through all the above, Kore-eda manages, rather masterfully, to be both universal and culturally specific in his humanistic, paternal melodrama. The same also can be said for his keen eye for middle-class detail - an observational skill perfected previously in the director's Still Walking (2008) - which here finds expression in the chewed straws that restate the film's final thesis or in the Red Lobster setting that provides a meeting point for the families, their attorney and representatives of the negligent rural hospital. (Kore-eda's camera naturally pursues a similarly observational tact that at the same time allows for mimetic grace-notes, such as the concluding rainbow flare that emotionally echoes the film's final, ever-so-slightly unconventional familial reorganization.) Ultimately, Like Father, Like Son, like all the very best Kore-eda, is a robust cinema, a work of precise gestures, carefully crafted familial relations and lived-in (or in the case of the Nonomiya's hotel-like flat: not-so-lived-in) places that do not so much provide added value as they comprise the very substance of the director's sterling middle-range craft.

This piece was written by Michael J. Anderson with significant authorial input from Lisa K. Broad. Like Father, Like Son is now playing in Denver, Minneapolis, New York and a number of additional North American cities (in which I have not lived).

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