Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Parent's Worst Nightmare

History and literature are filled with stories about children who have been separated from their parents.

What happens to children who are separated from their parents often depends on their survival instincts, their ability to find their way home, or their quick, resourceful thinking. A delicious plot twist in Gilbert & Sullivan's 1879 comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance, revolves around the piratical vow never to harm an orphan.

It's easy for audiences to become jaded and wonder how a filmmaker could possibly come up with a new angle from which to address the world's oldest form of separation anxiety. However, two new films manage to offer unique twists on an old predicament by demanding their viewers reconsider the age-old question: Which contributes most strongly to a family's ability to remain intact: nature or nurture?

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On the day I underwent a lithotripsy procedure (which bombards a kidney stone with sound waves in an attempt to break it into tiny pieces), I sat in one of the spacious lobbies of the new Kaiser Medical Center Hospital in Oakland and watched a mini-drama unfold before my eyes. On the other side of the lobby, an Asian-American mother was waiting with a small child in front of a bank of elevators. As an elevator door opened, the mother said something to the child and proceeded to walk into the elevator.

At that very moment, the child was distracted by something and turned around (facing away from the elevators). Before the mother could turn around and see what had happened, the doors closed between mother and son. There was a tense moment of silence before the child started crying.

It was the kind of moment that would be perfect for a kidnapping in a shopping mall or some other public setting. As two African-American employees who had watched the scene unfold passed by my chair, I head one of them ask "What kind of mother doesn't know that you need to hold onto your child's hand to prevent them from wandering away from you at that age?"

Good advice. But what happens when an older and slightly more mature child vanishes from the living room of his home while his mother is entertaining friends in that very same room? You get an absurdist thriller like Congratulations! (which is being screened as part of San Francisco's 2014 SFIndie Fest).

Poster art for Congratulations!

It takes a while before viewers might realize that Mike Brune's film is not supposed to make sense.
  • The parents of the missing child, Paul Ryan Gray, are obviously distraught and a bit surprised to find their likenesses included in the police sketches of potential suspects.
  • Mr. Gray (Robert Longstreet) seems more confused and inconvenienced than concerned, scared, or angry about his son's disappearance. Late in the investigation, he tells the police that he's really got to get back to work
  • Mrs. Gray (Rhoda Griffis) alternates between being in shock and cooperating with police requests to reenact the day her child disappeared by wandering around the neighborhood in hysterics.
  • Paul's older brother, David (Graeme McKeon), couldn't care less about his missing sibling because the little brat was a royal pain in the ass. 
  • Paul's younger brother, Jeff (Blake Jones), is thrilled that the detective has deputized him and given him a flashlight, a badge, and two handguns to use in his hunt for the missing child.
  • The Gray's home is covered with posters for the missing boy and the kind of yellow crime scene tape used in detective shows on television.
  • The Gray family is persuaded to take a vacation to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where someone else's child (who had once gone missing) mysteriously showed up flying a kite.
Mrs Gray (Rhoda Griffis) is a distraught mother
whose son has vanished in Congratulations!

Slowly, however, the viewer becomes aware that the story keeps shifting its focus from the missing child to the missing inner child of Detective Dan Skok (John Curran) of the Missing Persons Unit. At one point, using time-aging software, he examines what Paul would look like as he aged -- only to discover that by the time Paul turned 60, he would look exactly like Detective Skok.

And there's the key to understanding Brune's film. Skok is single. He has no wife, no children, and no family. He's the kind of workaholic gumshoe who has always lived for his job and, although due to retire, has nowhere else to go. After moving into the Grays' home, he sends them away and, while searching for clues, waters the lawn, does some ironing, and performs other housekeeping chores.

After several weeks, Paul is found hiding in the laundry room and effortlessly rejoins his family. There is no talk of a miracle nor the slightest explanation about how he survived for weeks on his own. Suddenly, the case is closed and Detective Skok has nowhere to go.

Detective Skok searches for clues in Congratulations!

Furtive glances between Mr. and Mrs. Gray underscore their anxiety about how to tell Skok that, although he's always welcome in their home and will always be considered a part of their family, it's time for him to get out of their lives. When his boss (Jack McGee), asks “What the fuck are you still doing here?” Skok replies “Police work.”

Congratulations! is quite obviously a labor of love by someone who adores the police procedural genre. Although extremely well crafted by Brune, it may leave audiences scratching their heads and feeling strangely unfulfilled.  Here's the trailer:

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One of the most popular literary devices involves two infants who were switched at birth. Gilbert & Sullivan employed this tactic twice, mining comic gold from the gimmick in 1878's HMS Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor and 1889's The Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria.

What happens when the child-swapping device is used in a contemporary drama?  A new film by Japan's Hirokazu Kore-Eda examines what transpires after a six-year-old child's DNA tests (required for his school admission application) fail to match up with the genetic profiles of his parents. With DNA testing now easily available, hospital administrators soon discover that two infant boys were switched shortly after being born. But why? And by whom?

Like Father, Like Son explores the emotional trauma when two sets of parents learn that the children they have grown to love are not related to them by bloodline. Although both boys are happy and healthy, their families are quite different.

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a highly competitive businessman who sees his son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya) as always needing to study harder and improve his learning scores. A workaholic who can never find time to spend with his family, Ryota lacks basic paternal instincts, is emotionally unavailable, and is missing the kind of active imagination that would keep a child's attention. There isn't much warmth between Ryota's parents or between Ryota and his brother.

Although Ryota's wife, Midori (Machiko Ono) initially seems subservient (in a more traditional Japanese manner), she's less than satisfied with their marriage. All little Keita wants is his father's love and approval.

Ryota Nonomyia (Masaharu Fukuyama) with his six-year-old son,
Keita (Keita Ninomiya) in Like Father, Like Son

By contrast, Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky) is a devoted father of three who runs a small appliance repair shop. His wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki), works in a fast food restaurant. Unlike the Nonomiyas, the Saikis are much more touchy-feely with their children (Yudai doesn't hesitate to share a bathtub with a young boy). Their oldest son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) is an average child, confident in his family's love and happy in the warmth of their home.

Each family's socioeconomic status plays a major role in Like Father, Like Son. Ryota is an upper middle class businessman who clings to certain traditions of Japanese culture (most notably that heredity is everything). Because his wife was raised in a rural environment, Midori has some insecurities about big city living but does her best to coach her son in his attempts to play the piano. Keita gets along best with his maternal grandmother, who likes to play Wii tennis with the boy.

Yudai may have less money and prestige than Ryota, but has solid fathering instincts and delights in spending time with his family. When both couples are advised by hospital staff to switch the boys back to their biological parents as soon as possible (and avoid further contact with each other), they must figure out how to stop loving one child and transfer their affection to someone new. As six year olds, Keita and Ryusei are justifiably confused and react like kids.

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife (Machiko Ono) look
at a picture of their biological son in Like Father, Like Son

At first, the parents' reactions seem a bit odd. Ryota's initial reaction is a combination of horror that his biological son is living with lower class parents and that he should try to buy his child back from them so that, even with his limited interest in parenting, he can "own" both children. Yudai is carefully tracking every financial opportunity to be reimbursed by the hospital for the damage caused by its employees' neglect. As filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu explains:
"Like the protagonist in the story, I have a five-year-old child. Through making this film I wanted to think about what blood connections really mean -- an idea that is very close to me. I honestly don’t know if we can describe the changes Ryota undergoes as growth or maturity, but what I can say is that becoming a father is not something you do on your own -- your child makes a father out of you. I also wanted there to be a contrast of character between the two children. Because the boys are six years old, I wanted them to express confusion, rather than sadness, towards their situation."
Poster art for Like Father, Like Son

It takes about five minutes to completely surrender to the charms of Like Father, Like Son thanks, in large part, to the exuberant charm of the little boy playing Keita. Backed by a sensitive musical score by Shin Yasui, the film's poignancy hits every vulnerable nerve. As usual, the two wives prove to be much more flexible, cooperative, and genuinely concerned about the children than their husbands. Here's the trailer:

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