It’s become more and more rare in contemporary cinema for a filmmaker to not only revisit thematic territory, but to essentially re-examine the same basic narrative dynamic from different angles. It’s a tack few filmmakers continue to utilize, perhaps to avoid accusations of redundancy, but Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has made the most of his purposefully modest cinematic constructs. Like Father, Like Son, his latest in a long line of unassuming family dramas, is one of his most heartbreaking works yet.
Set in modern-day Japan, the film paints in patient brush strokes the uneasy association between two families who unexpectedly learn they’ve been raising the other’s son for the past six years. The setup is seemingly vulnerable to overwrought dramatization, but Kore-eda forgoes melodramatic flourishes and instead stands back from his story’s inherent melancholy, allowing his actors to naturally convey the emotional bonds developed over time for their presumed children. Kore-eda spent much of his early career weathering comparisons to Ozu (his static camera compositions and familial predilections play at times like a direct tribute to the master himself), but over the years he’s finessed his compositional sense, developing a voice apart from not just his forebears, but a step more considered than most of his peers.
The contrast between the two couples—one well-off and traditional, the other more lax and modern—is established is expertly outlined visual fashion, but as the wives begin to grow close, bonding over maternal concerns, the two fathers find themselves only further alienated from each other and eventually, in the unfortunate case of one, his paternal son, who first visits on weekends before the couples attempt to exchange legal rights. Kore-eda handles this material in his typically gentle, methodically paced style, dividing the film into chapters by season, establishing a year in the life of these six individuals who come to see more of themselves in each other than they may have initially realized. It’s one of the films great strengths that he’s able to take such a specific subject and render it relatable to such potentially broad audience, whatever their marital or generational status.
There’s vital sense of humor in Kore-eda’s approach as well. He sees both the tragedy and logistical problems a situation such as this might yield, but manages to leaven the spirit of tribulation with comedic moments which set in relief the immediate repercussions of the families’ decision with that of the lifelong results they’ll have to carry as both a blessing and burden. It’s a balancing act Kore-eda handles with a veteran’s touch, bringing cultural nuance, universal emotions, and uniquely developed (and seemingly personal) details into the same basic story. In fact, it feels so true to life that there seems little chance that these two families will ever actually manage to empathize with the other, despite staring down the exact same futures. That Kore-eda’s able to offer even a faint glimmer of hope while staying true to the tenuous nature of such a relationship is further proof of his unique talent. If he’s tilling familiar soil here, he continues to do so at the height of his powers.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15—26.