Thursday, January 16, 2014

Children of men and women in Kore-eda's LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (そして父になる)

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (そして父になる), a hit at Cannes and recently seen making a strong showing at this year’s New York Film Festival, finds impressively consistent (consistently impressive?) director Kore-eda Hidekazu tackling another impossibly complex situation. Children are again at the forefront of the plot. But unlike his feature debut だれもしらない (Nobody Knows), here lies a great deal of ambiguity in how we should feel about the situation before us.

At the core of the story is a switched at birth scenario, which finds the Nonomiya’s faced with the shocking news that their 6 year old son, Ryosuke, is not the child they gave birth to. Their biological son has ended up with the Sakai family. And vice versa. The two families are faced with the harrowing task of deciding how to proceed. A hospital official’s advice that nearly 100% of the families that faced the same situation chose the same option – to exchange the children – make their course of action no less difficult.

Early on, the film is laden with subtly suggestive imagery: a twisting conch shell of a highway, a spiraling stairway of the exclusive private school where Nonomiya Ryota and his wife hope to enroll the child they’ve been raising. These speak of the convoluted path that lay ahead.

Kore-eda takes an already emotionally charged situation and crafts it into something fascinating, in equal turns humorous and tense, by making the two central couples polar opposites in almost every sense. There is a lot of mischief afoot concerning their vastly different cultural and socioeconomic standpoints.  The Nonomiya‘s live a neat and contained existence, their high-rise apartment almost literally an ivory tower. The Sakai clan is a ramshackle storm of chaos in comparison. Their sprawling home is overrun by Ryusei and two siblings, and serves as a base for at least 2 independent businesses ventures. The Nonomiya‘s uptown modesty clashes with the Sakai‘s prideful boast of their family name, which happens to be emblazoned on their home and van.

The most significant difference lies with the families’ respective patriarchs; the stoic and nearly impossible to satisfy Ryota, whose constant campaign against mediocrity is the source of a growing rift with his wife, and the Sakai family’s Yudai, an unrepentant slacker portrayed mirthfully by artist/actor Lilly Franky. Essentially they are the perfect foils for one another.

Yet just as we become comfortable with the predictable and true to life quirks of these characters, leave it to Kore-eda to pull out a quick turn of the tables that takes us by surprise. Like when Yudai‘s  lighthearted jesting and frugality turns to white hot indignation at a slight to his child rearing values hinted at by Ryota.

Most of the dramatic tension arises from the  Nonomiya’s. Not one to lose, Ryota seriously contemplates the possibility of taking both children. Meanwhile growing feelings of loneliness and isolation within his wife, Midori, make the idea of losing Ryosuke that much more unbearable. It makes for an interesting statement on the potential gap between achievement of status and true happiness. In a sense, speaking to the importance of community, voices of reason always appear to temper drastic behavior, be it from the hardworking, level headed Sakai Yukari – another counterbalance to her daydreamer husband Yudai, or Ryota’s somewhat estranged mother, or the switched children themselves.

What may be deemed by some as a slow ride is in fact an amazingly human balancing act of conflict and achieving harmony. The couples’ ability to collude in a trial run of separating from the children they have raised, having each child stay with their respective biological parents on weekends, is admirable, even as internal rifts and frustrations chip away at their resolve. Rather than wallow in despair, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON feels like a testament to resourcefulness and the ability to adapt, as the challenges of family are offset by the capacity for new relations to be sources of comfort, even in the face of the most challenging trials.

Kore-eda’s understated ambition is in top form, allowing him to explore both social issues particular to Japan and more universal human issues, without making a garish show of it. In fact a case can be made that Kore-eda is among the world’s greatest advocates of children as he continues to cast them in a respectful light without a hint of belittling or condescension. They appear as little adults, forced to adapt to the complex and often scary world left to them by older generations, and showing amazing resiliency in doing so. His depiction of their perspective is perhaps his most amazing gift of insight. Even a simple momentary detail, such as Ryosuke‘s wide eyed expression in the dark of his room while his parents argue right outside, is enough to speak volumes.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON opens this Friday, January 17,  in New York City at the IFC Center

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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