Switched-at-birth tale gets thoughtful treatment

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, February 12, 2014 6:30pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Tabloid story, meditative treatment: Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been in this territory before. His masterpiece, “Nobody Knows” (2004), was based on a news story of children left to fend for themselves when their mother simply abandoned them in their Tokyo apartment.

His latest film is also inspired by true accounts of a parental nightmare: Two couples learn that their 6-year-old sons, born on the same day in the same country hospital, were switched at birth.

Brought together by the news, the mortified parents must now work out what to do about a very complicated future.

“Like Father, Like Son” does not spread its time over these characters equally. The focus is on Ryota (Japanese singer-actor Masaharu Fukuyama), a hard-driving architect whose long workday leaves him little time with wife Midori (Machiko Ono) or the boy who is not their biological child, yet has been their son.

The other couple (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki) get less screen time, as their cheerfully messy, mildly trashy small-town existence is contrasted — a little too neatly — with the sterile high-rise apartment of their Tokyo counterparts.

The strange thing is, although we see early on what could be improved about Ryota’s way of life and expect the film to eventually come around to that, there’s nothing reassuring about the movie.

The situation is so awful, the possible results all so equally unsatisfactory, that even the somewhat straightforward lessons that Ryota needs to learn are given tense, uncertain life.

We generally see the boys through their parents’ perspectives, which is the opposite approach Kore-eda took in “Nobody Knows” — much of what was exciting about that film was the privileged position of staying at kid-level, not relying on an older, taller point of view. The situation was heartbreaking, but strangely enchanting.

“Like Father, Like Son” feels unbalanced, because you can’t help but wonder what’s going on when the boys are on their own, traveling between houses as the families get to know each other. That could easily be another feature film, and I couldn’t shake the feeling the other movie might be more compelling than tracing the arc of Ryota’s evolution.

For that matter, from the one glimpse we get of Ryota’s own father, yet another movie might be made of the original fraught relationship between those two (including the stepmother whom Ryota still treats with resentment).

Those imaginary films would also be called “Like Father, Like Son.” Which gives a measure of where Kore-eda’s sad focus is in this uneven, anxious picture.

“Like Father, Like Son” (three stars)

A tabloid story (two couples discover their sons were switched at birth six years earlier) gets a meditative treatment from “Nobody Knows” director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The real focus is on one of the fathers, a strict workaholic who must grapple with what’s more important: nature or nurture. In Japanese, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter.

Showing: Guild 45th.

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