CANNES, FRANCE – Audiences at the Cannes Film Festival hailed a “moving” Japanese drama Saturday about two families who fall victim to a baby swap.
“Like Father, Like Son” by Tokyo director Hirokazu Koreeda tells the story of a workaholic father, Ryota, and his neglected wife, who pours her energy into their 6-year-old boy, Keita.
One day their lives are turned upside down by a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born, saying that a nurse had switched him with another infant hours after his arrival.
The other couple, a fun-loving shopkeeper and his adoring wife, are pinched financially but raising a happy brood of three kids.
Lawyers get involved and Ryota insists that he should be raising the offspring of his own bloodline instead of the sweet-natured but directionless Keita.
In one heartbreaking scene, Ryota hectors Keita to give up piano playing “because you’re not very good at it, are you?”
The couples go through months of testing the waters, staging sleepovers and outings to prepare to take permanent custody of their “own” sons.
As the nature-versus-nurture debate unfolds, Ryota sees Keita as a stranger and fixates on the other boy for glimpses of his own biological traits.
“The main character is very proud, very arrogant,” the director, the father of a 5-year-old girl, said at the world’s top film festival.
“I wanted to show a contrast with the other father to trigger some upheaval in the values of the main character, who wants to be successful at any price,” said Koreeda, a frequent Cannes guest.
The film pointedly criticizes the merciless get-ahead mentality of Japan’s professional class, pointing up the high price kids pay for their parents’ ambition.
And it heaps scorn on a culture of rampant materialism, as Ryota deeply offends the other family by offering to pay them, provided he can keep both boys.
Lead actor Masaharu Fukuyama, a popular singer in Japan, made his film debut in the film.
Fukuyama, who has no children, said he was touched by its themes.
“This may be the issue that is closest to me right now,” he said. “From being a son, I became a father.”
Britain’s daily Guardian gave the film three out of five stars, saying “Koreeda has returned to Cannes with another gentle and warmhearted family drama.”
Trade magazine Variety said the picture was a “thoughtful exploration of the meaning of parenthood.”
“It’s the story’s intent focus on one father’s intimacy issues and redemptive transformation that makes the film so sublimely moving,” its reviewer wrote.
But The Hollywood Reporter said it failed to grab the heart.
“Here it’s a powerful premise but one that practically precludes empathy, and viewers may be justifiably skeptical that four parents, at least three of whom seem normal, would ever consider swapping children they had nurtured that long,” it said.
“Like Father, Like Son” is one of 20 films vying for the top prize, the Palme d’Or, to be awarded by jury President Steven Spielberg at a gala ceremony on Sunday.