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Thursday, July 31, 2014

On LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON and the Difficult Task of Remaining Cautiously Optimistic about American Remakes

Masahuru Fukuyama and Keita Ninomiya in Like Father, Like Son

Many film fans fall into despair upon learning of yet another remake, usually for nostalgic reasons (as in my case) or a crippling fear that the reboot will be far less than spectacular. Typically, these worries are met, but often Hollywood surprises us (though I can't think of a recent case like this). But we hardly receive the same level of outrage (or even reaction at all) when it comes to foreign films getting remade in the U.S. Sure, there was a mild outcry when director Spike Lee announced plans for the eventually ill-fated Oldboy remake, but most of the time there's an unspoken "well now I can watch a great movie without the hassle of subtitles" sentiment that says more about the movie-going culture than the actual film. It's even worse for foreign horror films, oft remade in English but receive little to no scrutiny because, well, they're horror films and the assumption is that no one really cares about those. 

But I'm not writing this post to lament about the saturated U.S. remake culture we live in. (Besides, I like some of these remakes, let's be clear). I want to discuss one in particular--LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. Last year's beautiful Japanese family drama directed by notable filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu has been in my head ever since I first saw it a few weeks ago. So much so that I've been obsessively adding as many other Hirokazu titles to my Netflix queue as is available. What is most special about the movie (and from what I've read, about many of Hirokazu's films), is what it's not: it's not a martial arts film, or an action film or a comedy, which are all genres that are generally more accepted by the casual U.S. filmgoer. Its universal themes--family, love, class, fatherhood--instantly enrapture the audience with a story that seeps deep inside your heart.

Left to right: Machiko Ono, Fukuyama, Riri Furanki, Yoko Maki,
Shogen Hwang, Ninomiya

Often flippantly referred to as the "the child swap drama" in several online reviews, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is the story of two families who learn that their six-year-old sons were accidentally switched at birth in the hospital. They are then faced with the tough decision to either grant partial custody to one another, continue to raise their sons as their own, or allow their sons to live with their biological parents permanently. It's an onerous predicament for sure, one that many of us could not even begin to understand. But how the story unfolds is what makes it that more fascinating to watch. The main father, a businessman named Ryota (played by Masaharu Fukuyama), has never truly connected with his more artistic son, Keita (Keita Nonomiya), until he finally takes the time to build a relationship with him once he realized he may lose him. At the same time, Ryota grapples with the idea of fatherhood--Was he never truly connected with his son because he's not biological? Now that he knows he's not his biological son, is his guilt relinquished? And can he truly be a father to another son and abandon the one he's raised these past few years? While the film doesn't solely revolve around Masaharu's character (though really, each actor is exquisite), his performance is so complex and absorbing that at times you think he's the only one in the film.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON gained a lot of attention when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year where it won the Jury Prize, notably from mega filmmaker Steven Spielberg who snagged the American rights to produce a U.S. remake. Listen, I like Spielberg and all (I go hard for E.T., Jurassic Park and Minority Report, especially), but I'm not thrilled about this remake. Not only am I worried that it will be completely whitewashed with not a single lead Asian character in it (a la Oldboy), but it may further enforce the notion that Asian characters or foreign films in general just don't appeal to American audiences. A notion that I am truly uncomfortable with. On the plus side, the remake will be in the hands of Paul and Christopher Weitz, whose most notable credits include About a Boy and A Better Life (and also American Pie and The Twilight Saga: The New Moon, but let's not talk about those). Still, I have concerns.

Ono and Maki

You know who doesn't seem the least bit worried about the remake, though? Hirokazu himself, who recently told Indiewire that he gives Spielberg his blessing. "I trust him," Hirokazu said. "I told him when I met him I was a bit afraid, I said, 'Please be free to adapt it for American society, like the relationships between the husbands and the wives —you can adapt that any way you like.' And Spielberg said 'No, I'm trying to keep it as Japanese—that is, as close to the original—as much as I can.' So I left him free to do as he wished but he says he wants to keep it to the original...whatever happens, I trust him."

Well, if Hirokazu is cool with it, then I guess we should all be? But something else struck me in this interview: the filmmaker's ideals on the universality of themes no matter the language, which I totally agree with. But I think the Hollywood has had a tendency in the past to err on the side of heavy-handedness in terms of erasing the essence of these types of characters to spoon feed the audience something presumably more familiar to them. We've seen it done in Edge of Tomorrow recently. Luckily, China scooped up plans for a biopic on Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American star, before the U.S. could (which means that there will likely be no whitewashing). But why does Hollywood continue to perpetuate the antiquated notion that Asian American characters are just not applicable to mainstream American audiences?

While Hirokazu has said he will not be involved in this new project, he has expressed his desire to visit the set. I am very curious to see who they will cast for the film. Though some remakes of foreign films have been quite good, and have captured the crux of the story being told, I am still concerned with the direction we're moving in, in terms of our acceptance and appreciate for foreign cinema.

Whatever happens with the LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON remake, whether it ends up being a disastrous failure or an epic success, I can only remain cautiously optimistic at this point. As Hirokazu said, "Films are more universal and less dependent on words than, say theater, so I would hope that not too much is lost."


Anonymous said...

This film has been high on my MUST SEE list since I read the synopsis, and your post has me all the more excited about it. A remake though? What upsets me more than anything is the fact that the film is brand new. Why remake something so new? I understand that they are remaking it in English, but to me that sends the wrong message. We should be encouraging people to see the original film, urge them to seek out subtitled films. Instead, all we are telling them is "don't don't need to read this a year or two we'll remake it starring Brad Pitt!"

Brittani Burnham said...

I just threw this in my Instant Queue! I will definitely be watching this.

Man, if Spielberg wants to keep it as "Japanese" as possible, why didn't just try to get this film a bigger American release? I imagine someone with his power could probably do that.

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