Switched At Birth!: Like Father, Like Son

01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Like Father, Like Son
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Leave it to Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda, who wrote and directed two of the aughts’ least histrionic gnawing-absence family dramas (Nobody Knows and Still Walking), to make a thoroughly grounded switched-at-birth movie. This isn’t to say that Kore-eda bends over backward to make his characters endearing. Masaharu Fukuyama plays successful architect Ryota, seen reinforcing overachiever values in his few spare hours with wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and overscheduled son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Visitors often marvel that the family’s sterile modern home is like a hotel; early on, we see Keita blowing out the candles on a cake to celebrate the passage of his elementary-school entrance exam, the sparkling green lights of the city skyline behind him suddenly all that’s visible from the darkened high-rise apartment.

Ryota’s rigidity emerges as a more pressing problem when the family must grapple with the news that their boy had been mixed up with another years ago at the hospital—and that their biological son, Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), has been living with a more disheveled couple, Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari (Yoko Maki), in an apartment above an appliance-repair shop. At a food-court meet-up early on, Ryota can barely conceal his disgust as he watches his flesh-and-blood chewing on a soda straw. Yudai, for his part, only seems to be able to talk about the size of the settlement they might get from the hospital. In due course, then, disputes over parenting principles complicate the discussion about how to manage a custody exchange as seamlessly as possible.

The class differences between the couples are hammered home with an insistence that seems out of step with the otherwise unobtrusive behavioral observations of the screenplay—with Keita in the backseat, Ryota mutters “this is pathetic” as he pulls up to Yudai and Yukari’s address; in court testimony, the nurse who was on duty confesses that the allure of the more put-together Ryota and Midori led her to switch the children deliberately. Such gratuitous contrasting only serves to make the themes feel less organic, but Like Father, Like Son stays with these characters long enough to show, affectingly, how even those stuck in their ways might learn to adapt to a situation without any tidy solutions. Kore-eda, renowned for his facility with child actors (on ample display in Nobody Knows and his recent I Wish), doesn’t merely focus on the uprooted kids—here, the parents must do some growing
as well.

Opens January 17