Nature versus nurture

Like Father, Like Son another moving drama for Hirokazu Kore-eda

Always gentle, always composed, the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda also register quiet devastation, often within the family. The stirring _ the earthquake, even _ usually happens beneath the surface of calm. Two years ago he gave us I Wish, a story about children of divorced parents, and before that, the sublime Still Walking, about a family wound that members prefer not to discuss. And, of course, Kore-eda's biggest hit in Bangkok was in 2003 with Nobody Knows, a painfully moving story of children left to fend for themselves after their mother walked out on them. That film packed Scala for more than a month.

Like Father, Like Son

Starring Fukuyama Masaharu, Ono Machiko, Ninomiya Keita, Franky Lily, Maki Yoko, Shogen Hwang. In Japanese with subtitles at Lido and House.

Like Father, Like Son, released on Father's Day on Thursday, continues and enriches his trope. A baby-switching tale, Kore-eda's new film again finds the delicate balance between sentimentality and unspoken nightmare.

As in Nobody Knows, Like Father, Like Son uses an individual story to show the dynamics, values and anxiety of Japanese society, while at heart, its clear-eyed focus is still fixed on children and their parents. Observers weren't surprised that, after seeing the film in Cannes and awarding it the Jury Prize, Steven Spielberg quickly bought the remake right. The US version is now in the pipeline.

The emotional centre of the film is whether blood is thicker than love, whether biology or upbringing defines us _ parents and children.

Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a well-to-do businessman working for a real estate company and living in a fashionably sleek apartment in Tokyo. Following a call from a hospital, Ryota and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) find out that their six-year-old son Keita (the wonderful Ninomiya Keita) isn't their birth child; due to what seems to be a horrible mistake, the hospital switched their baby with that of another couple. After the initial shock _ the movie is careful never to treat this as a tearjerking melodrama _ Ryota and his lawyer arrange a meeting with the other family: Yudai (Franky Lily), a bumbling, unkempt small-town shopkeeper, and his sensible yet tough wife Yukari (Maki Yoko). They've raised Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), who's Ryota and Midori's biological son.

The solution they all agree on is to make another swap, this time to make things right. But what's right is not easy to define. Ryota is an urban, disciplined, slightly uptight father who wishes to see his son grow up like him; Yudai is a provincial free spirit who raises his three children as if their house was an amusement park.

The differences in social status and lifestyle between the two families may seem a little too programmatic, but Kore-eda's sensitivity means these characters are never cheapened or reduced to symbols. The scenes when each boy, Keita and Ryusei, spends time with their "right" parents ring with a mix of confusion and sorrow, and they show how little details in life, in accumulation, shape a person _ how the boys hold chopsticks, the phrases they like to use, their body language. The success of Like Father, Like Son lies very much in the performance of the two boys _ performances that do not look like performances at all.

But maybe the fatherly ties are just a smoke screen: the title Like Father, Like Son suggests the paternalistic mentality of the Japanese, or of Asians in general, when in fact the film's invisible title is perhaps Like Mother, Like Son. The way the two mothers, Midori and Yukari, react to what initially seemed like a great tragedy _ your son is not your son _ is something between resigned acceptance and cool optimism. A kind of grace, maybe. And while the fathers bend over backward to make sure their children turn out to be like them, the sons may take after their mums more than we stop to notice, especially Keita.

As Ryota runs around and Yudai leans back, Midori's and Yukari's unspoken contribution to resolving the conflict is the backbone to both families, and to this poignantly touching film.

Snowpiercer

Starring Chris Evans, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Song Kang-ho. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. In English and Korean.

Glacial gore

Perhaps the most inventive Korean director around, Bong Joon-ho's post-apocalypse sci-fi thriller takes place entirely on a high-speed train that hurtles around the globe frozen in interminable glaciers. A botched global warming experiment has turned Earth into ice, and the heavy-metal snow-piercing train, built by a mysterious tycoon, carries the last of humankind, which is divided into sections _ or classes _ with the rich and well-connected enjoying the high-life at the head of the vehicle, while the downtrodden, the low-lifes, the third-class passengers, languishing in slum-like condition waiting for rationed food (yucky protein bars) at the rear.

The analogy is obvious, maybe a little too obvious. This Snowpiercer going round and round the icy globe is a microcosm of the world as we live it today, a place of inequality and discrimination where the poor are suppressed and living at the mercy of the rich and powerful. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before a revolt breaks out.

Hatching a plan at the back of the continually speeding train, a group of revolutionaries led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and the sage-like Gilliam (John Hurt), lead the ghetto-dwellers in an uprising as they fight their way through armed guards and inch ahead, one bogey at a time, with the aim to reach "the Engine" at the front where they hope to confront Wilford (Ed Harris), the Oz-like figure who designed the train and now lords over its inhabitants.

Before giving us this vision of apocalyptic tundra, Bong helmed The Host (2006), a monster movie so refreshing in visuals and conception, and Mother (2009), a revenge tale that was as disturbing as it was touching. Long-time fans also remember and admire his earlier films, notably Memories Of Murder (2003), starring Song Kang-ho (who's also in Snowpiercer) as a detective consumed by the horror of serial murders in a small town.

Snowpiercer is Bong's first international venture; it also reflects South Korea's ambition to become a global showbiz player. The film is based on a French graphic novel, shot in a Prague studio, and stars a cast of American and British actors _ besides Evans, Hurt and Harris, Tilda Swinton (weirdly comical), Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer also star _ alongside Korean favourites, notably Song, who plays a half-dazed security expert. Aptly, the multi-ethnicity of the actors also serves to show the biodiversity in this post-industrial Noah's Ark thundering through the snow.

This is a story of class war, manifest literally and symbolically at the same time. But as he did in The Host, Bong slips his social commentary under the genre playbook.

Snowpiercer is probably best taken as a compelling, high-concept action-adventure as the rebels _ a mix of whites, Asians and blacks _ machete their way through different barriers, entrapments and assassins as they try to win control of each bogey, edging closer to the Engine and gradually discovering the grand design of this super-train (there's an aquarium in one bogey, for instance, and a nightclub in another). For those looking for Korean-style ultra-violence, there's a moneyed scene in which Curtis and Edgar (Bell) plunge into a bloodied hammer brawl with the train's thugs _ somewhat like Park Chan-wook did in Oldboy _ as the vehicle passes through a tunnel. That kind of gleeful barbarism isn't something we often see in all-American action films.

The idea that the Ark-like train is the world and its compartmentalised structure reflects human civilisation is clever _ and yet it feels blunt at certain points (on airplanes and regular trains, we have "classes" as well). What Bong doesn't succeed quite so well with as he did in his other films is to give us full-bodied characters to embody his ideas. Evans, as Curtis, is sturdy but blank, while Hurt, as the prophet of the underprivileged, is underused. Tilda Swinton seems to enjoy playing the sadistic oddball and chief-oppressor Mason, but her bucktoothed antics and weirdly-accented speeches are just colourful distractions and not much more.

Only Song Kang-ho _ one of South Korea's best-known actors _ comes across as someone with wit, heart and gravitas; someone we can root for, and not just because it feels strangely refreshing that Asians can also save the world. That, plus the lubricating blood and the film's hurtling rhythm, is hot enough to keep Snowpiercer trundling through the white horror of Bong's design.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist