Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる)

そして父になる (Like Father, Like Son)

3/25/14 (Tue), Tokyo

I watched this mainly on the strength of the much-admired director Koreeda Hirokazu. Unfortunately, while his reputation preceded him, it didn’t follow. A well-off couple discover to their shock that their six-year-old son was switched at birth and that they have been raising someone else’s child. They meet with the other couple, who have two other kids as well, and arrange eventually to switch sons. The well-off dad is distant, uptight and devoted mainly to his social status and stolid career, while the other, owner of a small rundown appliance shop, is, of course, simple, uncouth and cheery with a focus on enjoying life with his kids. Guess who proves the better father. The mothers are there as well, but they take a back seat to the all-too-neatly contrasting dads. The entire movie is built on the colossally unconvincing premise that the parents would agree to give up children who they’ve raised and loved as their own for six years. The hospital that made the error tells the two couples that parents who have had similar tragic experiences agree to such arrangements in 100% of the cases. That’s not remotely believable and is precisely where the movie begins its downhill course. Despite the portrayal of the working-class dad as utterly involved in his children’s lives, there’s no explanation whatsoever as to how he consented to tear his son away from the other siblings and just give him away. Human nature must have been switched at birth as well.

Burdened with that hopeless concept, the movie was basically stillborn, asking us to accept the impossible. Worse, the script stacks the deck against the white-collar dad in every way, making him almost a comic book villain. For instance, when he finally wins custody of his birth child, ripping him apart from his siblings and the only parents he’s ever known, he doesn’t attempt to please him but actually presents him with a written list of dos and donts – sit down when you pee, take your baths alone, practice the piano, etc. Is that even slightly realistic?? What are the creators thinking? The father’s attachment to his job over his family is sadly not uncommon in Japan, and the presentation here was feasible in that sense. But, at least as shown here, they crossed a line when they suggest he would be so easily willing to jettison the child he has raised, much less win the kid back in a false happy ending. The script tries to address this when the father returns to his hometown, where his own emotionally distant father argues for the importance of the bloodline. But where was the mother in all this? The movie wants to say something about values and career vs. family and all that, but it ignores human feelings in order to make its point. Pitiful.

On the positive side, the pacing was superb, and the performances were outstanding all around. The unhurried rollout of the story, with no resort to artificial peaks and valleys, was filmmaking at its best. Technically, the film was a throwback to the golden years of Japanese film. The singer Fukuyama Masahiro proved an unexpectedly adept actor in the unsympathetic role of the cold main father, with a beautifully unforced portrayal. He deserved better material. Frankie Lily as the other father was engaging and resisted for the most part the temptation to overact, and the wives, though little different from each other and way too passive in all this, did their jobs well. But it was the kids who stood out with amazing performances across the board, especially Fukuyama’s son, whose obvious eagerness to please his father is brutally betrayed. His disappointment when his father comes to the other home without asking about him, expressed in a blank realization, hardly even seemed like acting. That’s a tribute to the director. The excellence of the cast was the main reason to watch this film through to the end.

The film won the Jury Award at Cannes, which I find incredible given the contrived setup and manipulated characterizations. And reviews I’ve read since writing this have been universally favorable, some ecstatically so. I don’t get it at all. I just hope the forced logic in this story isn’t typical of Koreeda. I don’t recommend it.

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