It's no surprise that director Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Like Father, Like Son" picked up the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and that jury president Steven Spielberg promptly bought the rights to a US remake. This trenchant and humane family drama bears the mark of a master craftsmen whose sharp cinematic style never overshadows a sensitivity to the inner lives of everyday people.
Though the setup, like the title, smacks of melodrama, the story unfolds believably as two sets of parents living in Tokyo learn from a blood test that their children were accidentally swapped at the hospital. For six years, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), a workaholic architect, and wife Midori (Machiko Ono) have raised young son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). But he was never theirs to begin with.
Keita biologically belongs to Yudai and Yukari, two shopkeepers who have Ryota's real son, Ryusei. Kore-eda wisely skirts the obvious cultural commentary on class division that a more sentimental director might have developed.
Legal counsel advises that the couples "exchange" children as soon as possible before they start kindergarten. So instead of making an outright choice, the families begin sharing time together, attempting some unorthodox mixing and matching, until they find themselves literally bartering over their children.
Since the early 1990s, Kore-eda has directed films of quiet, contemplative rhythms that explore unusual family dynamics. His intensely moving "Nobody Knows," 2004, centered on four young siblings' struggle to survival after their single mother flees their tiny Tokyo apartment without warning. Though "Like Father" more directly focuses on the plight of the parents, the Japanese director knows how to direct children, and to situate his films from their point-of-view.
The preternaturally gifted young Keita Ninomiya gives a wondrous performance as Ryota and Midori's six-year-old son. Like Onata Aprile in 2013's "What Maisie Knew," he understands the delicate balance of childlike wonder and knowing necessary to anchor such a role.
Tokyo rarely looks as lovely and melancholy as it does in front of Kore-eda's camera. First-time DP Mikiya Takimoto brings pictorial beauty to the film, exploiting the power of rack focus to carefully deliver information to the audience. Ryota and Keita will both be in the frame, but the focus might shift from one to the other across cuts to indicate from whose POV we're meant to interpret the scene.
While their metaphors may be far from subtle, the city's lonely skyscrapers, downcast street lamps and seemingly endless panes of glass look utterly lovely, with the nimble keystrokes of pianist Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations supplying measured lilts of sadness.
By opening a window into the simple days and ways of ordinary people faced with problems of cosmic significance, the film raises broader questions of nature vs. nurture, and how one parental misstep could irreversibly impact youngsters. "Like Father, Like Son" is as tightly crafted as a haiku, and like a good poet, Hirokazu smartly dwells in the specific and the particular to achieve universal truth.
"Like Father, Like Son" opens in select cities on Friday, January 17 and on VOD via Sundance Selects.