An unassuming humanist whose keenest advocates have been known to invoke the sacred syllables ‘Ozu’, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda last visited our screens with 2011’s ‘I Wish’, a winning fable of fraternal reunion with which his latest, ‘Like Father, Like Son’, shares many virtues: a warmly optimistic worldview in the face of significant domestic obstacles, a preoccupation with modern family structures and kids so gosh-darn cute as to make even Cliff Richard leave the cinema feeling broody.
These films are so relentlessly decent that to criticise them feels akin to stealing Christmas. But a certain packaged preciousness is beginning to seep into Kore-eda’s work that wasn’t present in works like 2004’s ‘Nobody Knows’. And his latest, for all its careful construction and sweet pockets of feeling, is his glibbest and most morally one-sided film to date.
The melodramatic premise is as old as the hills, which isn’t a problem in itself; it was good enough for Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’, after all. Two baby boys – one from a working-class family, the other from a wealthy one – are switched at birth by a hospital nurse, and the parents must face the emotional fallout when the error is discovered six years later.
Particularly adversely affected is work-wedded yuppie businessman Ryota (J-pop star Masahuru Fukuyama), who had never been much of a dad in the first place. He has long felt curiously disconnected from his loving but faintly dim son – his only child with more nurturing wife Midori (Machiko Ono) – and the promise of another boy out there with his blood brings out his most selfish instincts. Far more judicious in his response to any parent’s worst nightmare is Yudai (Franky Lily), the chilled-out, hippy-ish patriarch of the larger, poorer family. The pair’s opposing parenting styles create friction as the families initiate a staggered scheme to reswap the boys.
There’s typical grace and good humour in Kore-eda’s handling of this all-but-impossible situation. But the film’s critical lack of dramatic nuance undercuts its emotional resonance. Moreover, the hoary contrast between the chilly white-collar family and the cheerier, less privileged brood is classism at its most patronising. And while the director’s evident rapport with child performers is always a delight to observe, he hasn’t written actual characters for the kids this time: they simply laugh, smile and twinkle on cue. Audiences will respond as they always do, but Kore-eda is made of smarter stuff than this.