When Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-Eda first emerged on the festival scene two decades ago with Maborosi, he appeared to be more devoted to mood and atmosphere than to narrative. Since then, however, he’s repeatedly gone back and forth between smaller, character-driven pieces (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish) and more high-concept ideas: dead people making films of their most cherished memories (After Life); the fallout from a terrorist attack committed by a cult (Distance); a blow-up sex toy come to life (Air Doll). Kore-Eda’s latest film, Like Father, Like Son, tries to fit both models simultaneously, but this is a case in which the attention-grabbing storyline ultimately defeats him. There might be a way to avoid tediously predictable melodrama in a movie about two families who learn that they were each mistakenly handed the wrong infant years earlier, but if there is, Kore-Eda failed to imagine it.
That’s the scenario in a nutshell. Ryota and Midori Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono) dote on their 6-year-old son, Keita (Keita Nonomiya—apparently the fictional family was named after the child actor), though Ryota can’t help feeling frustrated that the boy doesn’t share his strong work ethic. An explanation suddenly arrives in the form of a notification from the hospital where Keita was born, which reveals he isn’t their biological child—their real son, whose name is Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), has been raised by another couple, Yukari and Yudai Saiki (Yôko Maki and Lily Franky), who are Keita’s birth parents. At once horrified and intensely curious, the two families arrange a meeting, and the two boys wind up swapping homes on a trial basis, kicking off an intensive nature-or-nurture study. The real question, though, is whether the emotional bonds created over those first six years can be undone.
Given how inherently poignant this subject matter is, one might expect an artist of Kore-Eda’s stature to avoid the most obvious, programmatic choices. Instead, he shamelessly engineers a huge class division between the two couples, so that Keita’s wealthier parents feel an additional compulsion to “rescue” their real son from his tacky, low-rent existence. (Ryota at one point offers to more or less buy the right to raise both kids.) Even that aspect, however, ultimately feeds the film’s maudlin primary story arc, in which the distant, disapproving workaholic Ryota gradually learns the true importance of family and fatherhood. (The film’s Japanese title translates as Then, One Becomes A Father.) It’s nearly impossible not to respond on some level to material this emotionally freighted, and Kore-Eda’s understanding of young children is typically astute—both boys take the switcheroo in stride, acting out later in subtle ways—but Like Father, Like Son has the overall depth and tenor of a Lifetime movie. Kore-Eda can do much better.