Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film involves an incident that would top the list of worst nightmares among parents if only it was more common. Two families learn that their 6-year-old boys were swapped at birth. The hospital is on the hook for damages, but how the parents deal with the fallout is at the film’s heart. Is blood thicker than water? Or does nurture trump nature? These are a series of decisions anyone would be hard pressed to consider.
To confound matters, the two families are marked by sharp socio-economic differences and clashing motivations. Although Kore-eda tries to devote equal screen time to each family, it becomes clear as the story unfolds over the course of a year that the film’s heroes are in fact the couple with a tougher time adjusting to the tragedy. A solidly middle class pair, this husband and wife believe they stand to lose the most.
Families in Kore-eda’s films are always in varying states of fracture. Nobody Knows (2004) was about a group of young siblings left to fend for themselves after their mother abandons them in their apartment. Still Walking (2008) studied an extended family’s ritual but pained visit to their elders. Most recently, I Wish (2011) observed how two young brothers try to grow up together despite living apart with one parent each.
Like all of these films, Kore-eda’s latest contains his signature sensitivity to pathos. It’s a compelling set of character studies buoyed by strong performances from the lead couples (Fukuyama Masaharu & Ono Machiko and Lily Franky & Maki Yoko). However, a more affecting strand shows how for the two boys, ignorance isn’t bliss. As with other juvenile talents Kore-eda has directed, Ninomiya Keita and Hwang Shogen here are naturals.
But Kore-eda has a tendency to overplay his hand when he knows he need not. For all its beauty, the film lacks the quietude and nuance that made his earlier domestic dramas (in particular Still Walking) so powerful. While never melodramatic, some elements are a tad blunt: from the traits of certain characters, to a classical music score used to marinate the plot, to a fairly easy ending. Surely this kind of familial fracture deserves starker shades of grey.