LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (PG)
121 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ *** 1/2
The story: Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machika Ono) are an ambitious urban couple pushing themselves and six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) up the social ladder. The boy, however, appears to lack the drive found in his father. Then the parents are told shocking news: Keita was swopped with another baby at birth. Should they keep him, or fix the mistake and take their biological son, raised by laidback shopkeeper Yudai (Lily Franky) and wife Yukari (Yoko Maki)?
Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda's name frequently comes up when local film-makers are asked to name influences and their favourite film-makers.
Outside of that circle, however, few will have heard of him, and no wonder.
It appears that the last time one of his works gained a mainstream cinema release here was almost a decade ago, with Nobody Knows (2004). Since then, his feature films have been screened only at festivals.
This work proves that his name should be circulated well outside cineaste circles.
Kore-eda is far from being an egghead or abstract artist; this drama dives into the human condition and asks hard questions, ones that upend comfortable notions about the nature of the family unit. The first and most important of them being this: On what basis is parental love given?
Kore-eda does not provide any answers, but by shaking the biological foundations that underpin two couples' relationships with their sons and seeing what falls out, he shows just how much, and also how little, the idea of "blood relations" matter.
For ambitious workaholic architect Ryota (Fukuyama), it matters a great deal; he is appalled by the idea that he is raising someone who does not have his genes.
Shopkeeper Yudai (Franky) and Yukari (Maki) appear to be less interested in the problem of whether to swop or not and seem to be fixated on the monetary compensation from the hospital that made the blunder.
As the story progresses, Kore-eda puts both couples through the moral wringer.
He is no Aaron Sorkin - the dialogue does not dazzle with rapier-sharp arguments and pithy repartee. Rather, Kore-eda's camera lingers on the small moments and spends almost as much time observing the six-year-olds as they do their fathers.
There is a deep sense of empathy for the characters, even the supposedly "unlikable" ones such as Ryota; Kore-eda's humanism is alive and it shines in his work.
Still, one wishes that his judgments were a little less comfortable.
His argument that biological parenthood is a human construct and an extension of the ego is well and good. It is a position he states tastefully, with great restraint.
But as stances go, it is somewhat bland. One is not saying he should throw in complications in the manner of evil-spawn drama We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), but a discomfiting twist in the tale would have been welcome.