Movie review

Switched-at-birth tale is an emotional ride

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When the country hospital where 6-year-old Keita was born calls and asks to meet with the boy's parents, dad Ryota says, "I hope it's nothing messy."

Short of a diagnosis of grave illness, it doesn't get much messier than this in the Japanese film "Like Father, Like Son." Final DNA tests will confirm that Keita and Ryusei, a boy born on the same day, were switched at birth.

'Like Father, Like Son'

Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama.

Rating: No MPAA rating but PG in nature due to subject matter and subtitles.

Both sets of numb parents meet with hospital authorities and are told, "Ultimately, 100 percent of parents choose to exchange" children who were mixed up as infants (which begs the question about how often this happens). "Considering your children's future, you should decide quickly," they advise, before the start of elementary school in less than six months.

Keita had just undergone a rigorous interview and testing process for a private school. Although mom Midori (Machiko Ono) would be happy with public school, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) thinks the boy should work hard now rather than struggle later.

Ryota is a workaholic, successful architect with high standards who sees kindness as a fault. "We can't both spoil him," he tells his wife after she was willing to allow Keita to skip a day of piano practice in their Tokyo high-rise apartment.

Like a Japanese version of the dad in the Harry Chapin song, "Cat's in the Cradle," Ryota says of his boy, "I wish I could at least spend Sundays with him." He says he'll have more time when his latest project is finished, something he's been promising for six years.

"Like Father, Like Son" raises all sorts of questions about what kind of dad Ryota is, what kind of son he is, and whether he should admire, sneer or take lifestyle lessons from the other couple (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki) in this impossible emotional quadrangle.

The second dad is a fun-loving appliance shopkeeper, living with his wife and their three children in cramped quarters connected to the store. His motto is, "Put off to tomorrow whatever you can," although he's mindful of the damages the hospital will owe.

Is it all about blood lines, for humans and for horses, as Ryota's elderly father suggests? Or should the families look to World War II when many children were adopted and fostered and loved? And what about when the boys age and look even less like Mommy and Daddy? How would the families, who live miles away, even execute an exchange if that is what they decide?

Lawyers get involved, as you might expect, but not exhaustive teams of therapists and psychiatrists who will undoubtedly be part of a planned American remake (DreamWorks bought the rights after the Cannes Film Festival where it took the jury prize). Taking talking heads and the media out of the picture leaves two families and two confused boys in an emotional wilderness.

Whether you have none, one or many children, you spend the movie wondering, what would I do? What should I do? How much or how little do you tell the youngsters? What about the little brother and sister, in the case of one family?

Filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda embraces moviegoers with the questions and haunting premises he poses, as in 1999's "After Life." In that Japanese-language film (not to be confused with "After.Life" starring Christina Ricci), the newly dead have to choose one and only one memory to take with them into eternity. Think about that the next time you cannot sleep.

This time, the writer-director -- whose own father died a decade ago and who became a dad five years ago -- presents contrasting styles in parenting and marriage along with memories of the small moments a son might want to erase or carry into eternity.

Some of the white subtitles on occasional white background are hard to read but this is a tender, teary drama exploring what it means to love a child, be a parent and forge a family.

In Japanese with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.

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