Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is unknown to me. He has an impressive filmography of highly regarded films — most of which seem to hinge on families and children — but none of them have previously penetrated the wilds of Asheville. This isn’t all that surprising — Asian cinema without large doses of action has not traditionally done well here, and Mr. Kore-eda’s new film, Like Father, Like Son, is certainly not action-packed. It’s a domestic drama, albeit one with occasional outcroppings of melodrama, and it centers on what can only be described as a hoary literary premise (children switched at birth). It also comes perilously close to the workaholic-dad subgenre that permeates American family comedies. But if you’re willing to stick with it, it’s a film of great nuance and substance that sucks you into its story without apparent effort.
The film focuses on an upscale family: successful architect father and husband Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), his wife Midorino (Machiko Ono) and their 6-year-old son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota is often absent, yet he demands a possibly too-strict sense of order. That structure is shattered when it turns out that Keita is not their child and that he and another baby were switched at birth. The hospital (anxious to deal with this quickly, quietly and cheaply) is of the opinion that the two couples should reclaim their rightful children — but for the families, it raises other issues. Ryota comes to believe that this explains why Keita isn’t capable of living up to Ryota’s image of him. It also eats away at the marriage.
Things get more complicated when the two families meet. The other family is headed by Yudai (Rirî Furankî), a good-natured, lower-class “regular guy” who ekes out a meager living with his run-down appliance and fix-it store. He is about as different from Ryota as possible, as is his approach to fatherhood. Yudai is also opportunistic and has plans to get as much as possible out of the hospital. Not surprisingly, Ryota mistakes Yudai for an easy mark, thinking he can settle things by getting custody of both Keita and his biological son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang). (That idea doesn’t play so well.)
Many of the decisions in the film seem especially boneheaded — like trading children for weekends. Then again, this is a peculiar situation. It comes as no big shock that Yudai is a lot more fun as a father, but there’s much more at work here than who’s more fun. There’s great emotional depth — a depth that quite transcends the film’s bouts of melodrama. A lot of the film is more about Ryota, the factors that make him the way he is and his discovery of his own shortcomings and humanity. The film’s penultimate scene, with Ryota and Keita literally on different paths that finally merge, is perhaps the finest thing in the film. It also justifies everything we’ve seen. Not Rated but contains adult themes.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.