Wednesday 11 September 2013

TIFF 2013 - Like Father, Like Son

If you know any 6 year olds, you know that responding "It doesn't matter" when they ask "Why?" is pretty pointless. Regardless of any context, the comeback is bound to be circular in nature. So it says a lot about the parental experience of Ryota (one of the fathers in Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film Like Father, Like Son) when he does just such a thing. After learning that his 6 year-old son was switched at birth, he, his wife and the other two parents decide to try exchanging the boys for a few weekends to judge whether they should make the swap permanent. When little Ryusei (his weekend guest) pesters him with a barrage of questions, you'd think Ryota would have had enough experience to properly handle them. The fact that he doesn't is how Kore-eda enters into his exploration of what it means to be a father.

In the director's honest Q&A following the screening, he admits that he based the rarely-home and work-focused Ryota on himself. As he realized that he had missed some crucial moments in his own daughter's life, he began to work out the details of this affecting story of these two families. Ryota is a man driven by success, status and money. He feels that if one cannot be the best at something, well, why bother even doing it. To reinforce this point with his son Keita, Ryota sends him to cram school solely in order to pass an interview for private school. Though diligently following the rules of the household, Keita never quite measures up to Ryota's expectations, so when he and his wife learn of what happened six years ago, he mutters "Now it all makes sense...". It's almost a relief to him to hear that Keita isn't his true flesh and blood. If there was any doubt that Ryota has a warped view of fatherhood, it's dispelled in that moment. The movie doesn't necessarily brand him as a terrible person though - after all, he's surrounded by male role models (his father, his boss, the strongly patriarchal society) that believe in the preservation of status roles and the importance of respect while also discouraging emotion and kindness. Ryota's own father even counsels him to quickly make the exchange of the boys and then never to see that other family again.

That other family comes from outside the city and live in much more modest means than Ryota's wealthy apartment dwelling. They have an additional two kids (both younger) and a very different parenting style. Mom has pretty much equal say and the father Yudai is far more fun-loving and positive in his approach with the kids. He's not perfect (as evidenced by the behaviour of their kids sometimes) but he's more concerned with giving them a childhood of warmth and comfort - as messy as that may be occasionally. He's involved in their play, fixes their toys (something that brings out the jealousy in Ryota since he sees Yudai as being part of a lower class) and gets a great deal of enjoyment out of simply spending time with them. Perhaps I'm biased due to my own approach towards imperfect parenting, but it feels like the film says we should aspire to be more like Yudai. Not in the specifics, but in his approach to life and how he raises his kids through tenderness and love. This may be why we spend so much more time with Ryota - Kore-eda is trying to make the same journey.

The film excels in its little moments - the grandmother who will defend sweet bean cake until her dying breath, the way Yudai always talks with his mouth full, the wink Ryusei's Mom gives Keita and most of all just about every moment with the two adorable boys. They are natural, cute, funny and slightly mischievous. In short, Kore-eda perfectly captures the 6 year-old boy on screen. Keita's big observant eyes and Ryusei's random shouts of "Oh my Godt!" pull you straight into the lives of these people - something that's always been key to Kore-eda's films. No matter what subject or theme he is considering, he always manages to bring real and interesting people to his stories with whom you kind of want to stay in touch - even the terribly misguided Ryota. Despite his father's view that being a Dad is solely about the genes you pass on, the film - and by extension Kore-eda - is very clear that there's far more involved. After all, "Blood alone does not make the connection".

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