The films of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda are a tough sell. At their worst — which would be “Maborosi” (1995), his first feature — they can be crushingly dull. At their best — like, say, “Nobody Knows” (2004) — they are full of nuance. In fact, sometimes there's so much nuance, that it's hard to find what, if anything, lies beneath.
His new “Like Father, Like Son” starts out with a classic old hook — babies switched at birth. It's so frequent a plot hook that it constitutes something of a subgenre of its own, which is why neither “Like Father, Like Son” nor any one of the numerous TV dramas needs to acknowledge a debt to Mark Twain or Gilbert and Sullivan or Shakespeare or whatever ancient Greek probably started the whole thing in the first place.
Most often these works are farces, which is far from Kore-eda's interests. Even when he dabbles in fantasy — as in “After Life” — his style is firmly rooted in realism. There is nothing in “Like Father, Like Son” that is impossible, although the psychology of the characters, his main focus, is highly improbable (or maybe I just haven't been getting out enough).
We initially meet the Nonomiya family (hereafter referred to as Family No. 1) — father (pop star Fukuyama Masaharu), mother (Ono Machiko), and 6-year-old son (Reita Ninomaya) — at an interview for a competitive private school. We quickly understand that Mom No. 1 is somewhat meek and put-upon; that Dad No. 1 is who puts upon her; and that Son No. 1 is a bit more playful and less driven than Dad would like.
Dad No. 1 is the protagonist of the story and also the least sympathetic of the main characters. He's a workaholic architect, who wants his only child to be as materially successful as he is.
About 10 minutes in, they receive a call from the country hospital where their son was born; they are informed that their son and another child were switched that night, and that the error has only just been discovered. It's an inconceivable situation: they want to meet their biological offspring, Son No. 2 (Shogen Hwang), but Mom No. 1 and (to a lesser extent) Dad No. 1 cannot imagine parting with Son No. 1.
Family No. 2, who have raised Son No. 1, are in an identical position. When the families meet, it is immediately evident that they are direct opposites. Dad No. 2 (Riri Furanki) is an appliance repairman, sweet and unambitious, who barely manages to support his wife (Yoko Maki), Son No. 2, and two younger children. He loves his kids, but to Dad No. 1, that is overwhelmed by his shabby clothes, low social position, and relaxed attitude.
The families may be two sides of one coin, but their reactions are out of balance. Partly because of class and partly because of his mellower nature, Dad No. 2 is far less judgmental. Sure, he thinks Dad No. 1 is a bit of a stick, but he's not so bad.
Nonetheless, they have to agree on what to do in this insane situation, which is where the realism flies out the window and off into cloud-cuckoo-land. Among their serious options is simply to return the mutual merchandise back to the rightful family. In fact, the hospital tells them they might as well just do so, sooner rather than later, because 100% of couples in similar cases eventually make that decision.
Perhaps this is a cultural difference, but the best of the many bad options is to keep the kids they've raised and perhaps nurture a relationship with their “real” children. Couple No. 2 seems open to suggestions, and Mom No. 1 is obviously horrified by any plan that separates her from Son No. 1; but Dad No. 1, by far the most forceful personality, takes bloodlines very seriously and pushes for the returned-merchandise solution.
Kore-eda seems less interested in the actual decision than in the class conflict and the way the situation begins to tear apart Dad No. 1's personality. He is so devoid of sentimentality, so out of touch with his better side that he does some awful, heart-wrenching things.
Kore-eda's style is deliberately plain and matter-of-fact; the obvious touchstone here is the late Yasujiro Ozu. He never “tells” us things or even shows them in a pushy way. The action in “Like Father, Like Son” is solely within the actors' faces, their inflections, all the smallest aspects of performances.
“Like Father, Like Son” opens this week at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and other select theaters.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).