The premise of children being switched at birth seems more like a relic of fables, legends, and lazily written comedies and soap operas. But that's what makes Like Father, Like Son, the Jury Prize winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, so terrific. It takes a seemingly far-fetched idea and grounds it in real life and real emotions as it tells the story of two sets of parents in modern-day Japan who learn that a nurse had switched their now six-year-old sons at birth. And with that knowledge, the parents must decide if and how they will attempt to transfer their sons across class lines and conflicting parenting styles in a beautiful, touching exploration of childhood, parenting, and the tricky, seemingly unanswerable question of why parents love their children. Watch the trailer for Like Father, Like Son below.
The film spends most of its time with Ryota (played by Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (played by Machiko Ono). An upper-middle class couple living in the city, Ryota spends long hours working as an architect, with Midori, who doesn't work, handling nearly all the parenting duties for their son, Keita (played by Keita Ninomiya), who's being groomed to follow his father's track of high achievement, independence, and emotional distance. They're understandably devastated when they learn that their son isn't their own, and their concerns only grow when they're introduced to the couple who've been raising their biological son -- an unambitious but genial shopkeeper (played by Riri Furanki) and a fast food cashier (played by Yoko Maki) who have two additional children and live in a cramped apartment in the suburbs.
The question of what to do next once both sets of parents are notified seems to have no good answers. Should the parents keep the children they've been teaching and bonding with for six years, even though they aren't biologically related? Or should they swap children, ignoring the relationship they've forged with their mistaken sons for a child of their own blood who they don't know and had no part in raising? While the premise may seem contrived in the 21st century, Like Father, Like Son handles it with the gravity it deserves if it were to happen in real life to parents from different socioeconomic classes. And as the parents get to know each other and the two boys and contemplate their options, the film becomes a thoughtful, intimate, realistic examination of what it means to be a parent (and, in particular, a father), and whether blood is (or should be) thicker than water.
Like Father, Like Son is written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, who's considered one of Japan's very best directors -- and it's no wonder why. The film is beautifully shot and the acting is subtle, natural, and smart, with neither of the fathers coming across as caricatures or archetypes of the class divide they represent. And while it may be lost on western audiences, there's also an interesting commentary on the changing face of fatherhood in Asia, where up until not long ago it wasn't just uncommon, but actually frowned-upon for fathers to take care of children since a father's role was solely to provide for their families -- meaning that a father taking care of a child wasn't doing his societally-mandated job.
However, hard-working and distant fathers obviously aren't unique to Asia, and good proof that Like Father, Like Son is a story that travels is the fact that Steven Spielberg was so impressed with the film that he and DreamWorks have optioned Like Father, Like Son to make a version for American audiences. But instead of waiting for that, I'd highly recommend catching the original, which is my favorite movie I've seen so far in this young 2014.