Kore-eda Hirokazu is for me one of the finest filmmakers in the world today. He makes splendidly and subtly crafted films about everyday characters plunged into slightly extraordinary situations – and although I have not seen all of his films, those that I have seen are always fascinating and humane.
Like Father, Like Son is no exception. It tells the story of a family that discovers, six years after living with who they believe to be their child, that their son is in fact not their son, but really the child of a different family – whose presence in their home has come about as a result of a mix-up at the hospital where the children in question were born.
The film is in part a moral tale about how money is not necessarily the best thing that one can provide for a family, since love and time are perhaps two unquantifiable commodities that nonetheless might help not only to bring and keep a family together, but also might create the conditions to raise a child that is better suited (ethically?) to the world in which we live today.
However, while beautiful – and while ultimately very moving – it is not this aspect of the film that I would like to discuss briefly now – even if Hirokazu manages to make a moral film seemingly unmoralistic, which is no mean achievement given (I could not help thinking how uneven this film would be if the same story were told by, say, Mike Leigh – which I do not wholly intend to serve as criticism of Mike Leigh, whose films I also like).
*Spoilers* (though it will not spoil the emotional impact of the film).
What I wish briefly to discuss now is the fact that wealthy businessman Ryoto Nonomiya (Japanese singer, songwriter and actor Masaharu Fukuyama) realises that he cannot abandon his adopted son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) when he finds on his digital camera pictures that Keita has taken of Ryoto while he has been asleep in the build-up to the big child swap (the families decide to raise their own genetic children rather than to raise children that are not their own).
The moment is moving in a way that – inevitably but perhaps also lazily – recalls Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum – the idea that certain images can pierce/traumatise us so much because they bring the person depicted in the images to life, even though they of course technically absent (or, in the case of Barthes who devises the concept in relation to a photography that he sees of his mother, dead). I say that this is a lazy link, because death, irretrievability, and a real family bond seem key to punctum – and so while Ryoto arguably has a punctum in the film, we do not and cannot necessarily have one, because we are seeing fictional characters. Nonetheless, some aspects of the punctum remain relevant.
What is more noteworthy, though, is that Ryoto chooses to abandon Keita after six years as his father basically because Keita does not have his genes – and he’d like to sire a child that continues his blood line (Ryoto is something of a snob, unlike his counterpart father, Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky), who runs an electronics store in the countryside).
And so when it is that Ryoto reverses this decision as a result of seeing photos that Keita has taken of him while asleep, we get a sense here not simply that time with someone is what creates a family bond – but that images, photographs in particular, create a stronger bond between humans than do genes.
The ramifications are numerous, though I shall mention only two: no wonder we find CCTV synonymous with the notion of the Big Brother; maybe Facebook friends are an ersatz family for those who use Facebook and who tag themselves in photos with other people.
Photos seemingly are our memories – the photos jogging Ryoto in such a fashion that now Keita truly is his son (even though Keita is not in the images; he just took them). Furthermore, photos do not simply show that which is within their frame; they also show the intentions of those who take them – as Ryoto realises as Keita’s love for him becomes clear in these images. Finally, photos are not objective records of events, but they are invested with emotions and they touch us in a fashion that extends far beyond simply our eyes.
To suggest that the digital – because manipulable, deletable, reproducible – somehow eludes the photographic, because unlike an analogue photograph, a digital photograph does not necessarily have what is often termed an ‘indexical’ link to reality (digital images are made up of numerical code and are not necessarily the direct impression of light on polyester/celluloid film, such that the image is proof of what was before the camera at the time of the image’s taking), would be to misunderstand the digital.
Indeed, it would be to misunderstand the digital on a variety of levels – of which I shall name two.
Firstly, it would reduce to the digital alone the possibility that the world is not a fixed thing ‘out there’ but something that is in fact dynamic and undergoing constitution at all points in time; in fact, even analogue photography was always only ever mummifying change (to borrow a phrase from André Bazin), which in turn leads us to understand that change is perhaps the chief characteristic of reality – but not necessarily a change that happens ‘out there’, but in/with which we are entangled and in/with which we take part.
Secondly, to separate analogue from digital photography would be to lose how photography is the concept that unites the two, and that it is – to continue with the biological discussion that Like Father, Like Son evokes – a meme of sorts that evolves. That is, photography has migrated from analogue to digital; it has changed in the process – as all things evolve; but the digital has also allowed photography to prosper even more than analogue ever allowed it to.
As a result, we have photography transcending its ‘genes’ (it will evolve via digital if it has to), just as Ryoto realises that family also transcends genes, with photography playing a key role in gluing a family together and making it what it is, above and beyond the genetic link that yokes father to son.
In this way, Like Father, Like Son is not only the most moving film that I saw at this year’s London Film Festival, but it is perhaps also one of the most profound.