Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, Like Father, Like Son is the latest film from Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu (Nobody Knows, I Wish). With his penchant for family drama, Kore-eda has conquered a new summit with this unique story that begs the question, “Is blood really thicker than water?”

Although Ryota Nonomiya loves his son, Keita, he doesn’t seem to like him all that much. An identical replica of his peaceful and tender-hearted mother, Midori (Ono Machiko), the six-year old annoys his super achiever dad whose every accomplishment is celebrated with a newly set goal. As a successful architect, Ryota, who equates kindness with weakness, finds it hard to believe that the obedient and untalented Keita is his spawn. With his “Type A” personality, Ryota is focused only on his next career objective. A typical Japanese businessman, he’s an emotionally distant, competitive moneymaker, all about prestige and the status quo. Giving up all his time to work, he has nothing left over to share with the sweetly sensitive child who is his polar opposite, especially since Keita plays piano haltingly and has a physique smaller than other kids his age.

Then one day, the hospital where Keita was born calls the Nonomiya family and confesses their mistake, Keita was switched at birth with the baby who is their real son. Both Ryota and Midori are anguished. They’ve always known Keita as theirs. But when they meet their birth son, Ryusei (Hwang Shogen), and the Saiki family, Ryota is torn. Excited to see some of his extroverted traits reflected in Ryusei, he begins to wonder if he ever really loved Keita.

Meanwhile, Midori’s pain is tinged with guilt. She questions why she didn’t know intuitively that the child she raised was not the one her body carried for nine months. While she obsesses over her seemingly lack of a mother’s instinct, she also recognizes her reluctance in handing over the child she nurtured for six years.

As options are hastily presented by the hospital, a lawsuit is discussed, and Ryota insults the other family by making an offer they can refuse—that he will raise both boys because he’s financially able to do so. Instead, both families agree to trade boys for short periods of time so that they can get used to their real parents before making a permanent switch.

But Ryota has hesitations; the Saiki’s are a raucous blue-collar bunch, loud and crass, and he’s horrified when imagining the defenseless Keita spending the weekend with them. While Mr. Saiki owns an appliance repair shop, the Mrs. sells bento at a market—indications of a lower class to the snobbish, caste-conscious Ryota. With three boisterous children, the Saiki’s are in a constant state of play; clambering over playground equipment, excitedly flying kites on the beach, and crowding together into one bathtub.

The only one who seems content is Keita who finally understands what it means to have a real father. For the first time, he’s being doted on, paid attention to, and taught new skills hands-on by a male mentor.

Fuyama Masaharu (who starred in the taiga drama series “Ryomaden”) really shows off his versatile acting skills as Ryota. Although he displays a cool callousness most of the time, he does allow shining moments of compassion to break through, especially in a scene where Keita runs away from him.

Both boys are accurately cast and the charming Keita (Keita Nonomiya in real life, too) is superb at showing a range of emotions while looking like a lost urchin with his vulnerable smile and haunted eyes.

Except for one enormously unbelievable scene (the reason for the switch), Kore-eda skillfully weaves a tale that appears sincere and frighteningly plausible. The old saying may be that “blood is thicker than water,” but in this story the comparison between the two becomes moot in consideration of a heart wrenching, life-changing decision.

Fun Fact: Mr. Saiki Yudai is played by Riri Furanki aka Lily Franky who named himself after the movie “Franky Goes to Hollywood” combined with his nickname from the University of Yuri, which means lily.

Like Father Like Son (with English subtitles) opens Friday, February 14 at Landmark’s Guild 45th Theater, 2115 North 45th Seattle, WA 98103.

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