Thursday, January 16, 2014

Difficult family dynamics, Japanese-style: Hirokazu Kore-eda's LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

The old switched-at-birth routine (Angel of Mine, The Other Son) gets an anything-but-routine telling via Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest and maybe loveliest film, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. Even when his subjects grow as bizarre (an inflatable plastic doll come to life) or heart-breaking (how an abandoned family of children try to care for each other), as in After-Life and Air Doll, it's this film-maker's consistent ability to give us such real and specific behavior, in the midst of whatever kind of life is going on, that always seals the deal. Hirokazu (shown below) is the real thing and there is no one quite like him working in film today. His new movie -- a tear-jerker that earns the workout it will give your lacrimal sac -- does not disappoint.

The filmmaker is noted for the fine performances he seems to always get from his child actors, and he certainly does it again here, though he draws equally wonderful ones from the adults on hand. As Hirokazu has matured (he's 51 now), he seems more and more drawn to stories that resonant over generations and fairly wide-ranging themes -- from divorce and separa-tion to coming to terms with anger, forgiveness, parents who don't seem to care, even death.

In Like Father, Like Son, he is dealing with several of the above themes, as well as with the old nature-vs-nurture controversy, along with the workplace and class differences in a way that I have not noticed as strongly in his previous work. This makes his movie all the richer.

In the film, a workaholic dad (the marvelously subtle actor, Masaharu Yukuhama, above) -- who would seem, on the face of the first couple of scenes, to have a somewhat idyllic life with his lovely wife andchild -- learns that his son is not his biological flesh-and-blood, after all.

When the family finally meets the other family (above) who has raised its actual son, just as it has raised the other boy, it is clear that there is a huge difference here in everything from income to education. Most city-dwelling sophisticates will, I think, identity much more with the initial family, but Hirokazu doesn't let us off the hook nearly so easily. At first, the new family seems crass --particularly the father (above, left). But as the film flows along, this dad grows on us even more than does his wealthier counterpart.

The moms bond more easily, as women often do, I think, and even the two dads try their best. (The Japanese proclivity for civility seems so very helpful here.) What about the kids themselves? As usual, the filmmaker gets striking performances from the children (shown above and below), and we begin to see that in some ways, both sons are like fish out of water, while in other ways , they've adapted quite well.

But how will the parents adapt to all this? And what is the best way to proceed? This is key, and Hirokazu follows things along part of the way, until we understand that the dad with the biggest problem is at least trying. Will he make it all the way?  Time'll tell, and I'm glad that the filmmaker didn't tie up everything too neatly.

Instead he gives us that wonderfully real behavior, from all concerned. Watching this is a pleasure in its own right, but it also helps us follow and believe in the changes that occur, especially in our troubled company/family man.

From Sundance Selects and running two hours, Like Father, Like Son opens this Friday, January 17, in New York City at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema. The following Friday, January 24, it will open at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7. The film will also be available nationwide on Sundance Selects’ video-on-demand platform, available to over 50 million homes in all major markets.

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