Like Father, Like Son a tearjerker that earns its wadded Kleenexes 

Switched at Birth

Switched at Birth

The Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda frequently takes a situation fraught with melodramatic tension — a group of abandoned children fending for themselves (2004's Nobody Knows), a heavenly way station where people must choose one lasting memory for eternity (1998's After Life) — but allows it to play out without overhyped emotion. A documentarian early in his career, he regards his characters with poetic directness and simplicity: They're framed by their surroundings, a private sphere with a larger world visible beyond. But the conflicts and agonies that arise from them are more believable for this grounding. His editing often holds an extra beat, so we register the feel of an empty room or living space still reverberating from the people who've left it.

His latest film, Like Father, Like Son, has the impact of a tearjerker as well as the plot: Two couples — one upwardly mobile, one blue-collar — learn that their sons, now age 6, were switched at birth in the hospital. For workaholic architect Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), the news solves the nagging question of why little Keita (Keita Ninomiya) doesn't share his competitive drive. When the hospital administrator says that 100 percent of couples who've faced the same situation have opted to swap and restore genetic order, Ryota starts seriously considering a trade: the stranger who shares his bloodline for the child he's raised from birth.

As with Kore-eda's wrenching Nobody Knows, the story has some basis in fact — though the schematic portrayal of the two families (the movie's biggest weakness) veers uncomfortably close to the patronizing snobs-vs.-slobs homilies of a show like Wife Swap. The difference is all in the nuance and the director's prismatic understanding of his many characters' complex, competing motivations. When he positions the two couples in the same frame — especially the devastated mothers (Machiko Ono and Yoko Maki) — we tense not because we don't know how they'll respond but because we do. And as in previous films, Kore-eda's direction of child actors is superlative: They never seem like little heart-tugging machines that emote on cue, which allows us to feel their confusion and anguish all the more acutely. If you can make it through the movie's second half with only one box of Kleenex, both sleeves and however many armrests are handy, you're made of stronger stuff than I.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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