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(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg's jury. We're going through the list by director and in alphabetical order -- next up, Hirokazu Kore-eda with "Like Father, Like Son.")
The director: Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japanese, 50 years old). While the modern school of Japanese cinema is dominated by formally abrasive, genre-splicing stylists -- of which another of this year's Competition entrants, Takashi Miike, is a prime example -- Kore-eda's quiet humanism hearkens back to previous generations: more than a few critics have likened him to Ozu. Born in Tokyo in 1962, he initially harbored ambitions of being a novelist, though after graduating, he found his way into film via a stint as an assistant director for an independent TV production company. After directing three documentaries, he made his first narrative feature, "Maborosi," in 1995; it was an auspicious debut, premiering in competition at Venice and winning him an immediate critical following that has grown with such subsequent films as "After Life," "Still Walking," "Nobody Knows" and, most recently, "I Wish." Family life, mourning and companionship are recurring concerns of his work. "Like Father, Like Son" is his ninth feature.
The talent: Though leading man Masahuru Fukuyama has done some acting work before -- chiefly on the small screen -- Japanese audiences know him best as a chart-topping pop star of over 20 years' standing. Rounding out the principal cast are actresses Machiko Ono (from 2007 Cannes Grand Prix winner "The Mourning Forest") and Yoko Maki (from the US remake of "The Grudge"), and another musician-turned-actor, Lily Franky. As is his custom, Kore-eda wrote and edited the film himself. His DP, Takimoto Mikiya, worked as a stills photographer on Kore-eda's 2009 film "Air Doll."
The pitch: After his dalliance with fantasy in "Air Doll" met with less universal critical acclaim than usual, Kore-eda returned to his more traditionally favored territory of dense, wistful family drama with "I Wish" in 2011. He'd arguably sweetened the formula a little, but the critics were back on his side, and he appears to have remained in that lane with "Like Father, Like Son." Fukuyama plays Ryota, a devoted family man thrown into immediate emotional turmoil when he and his wife are informed that their 6-year-old son is not, in fact, their biological offspring: the hospital accidentally switched two families' newborns at birth. After contacting the less privileged family that has been raising their son for the last six years, Ryota and his wife must effectively choose between nature and nurture. Hardly a new story, it's the stuff of many a tear-streaked melodrama, though we can expect Kore-eda's measured, documentary-influenced approach to keep the hysterics at bay.
The pedigree: Kore-eda has been in Competition at Cannes twice before: in 2001 with "Distance," and in 2004 with "Nobody Knows." He won nothing on either occasion, though the latter film, a moving study of a pre-teen boy who takes it upon himself to parent his younger siblings when their mother disappears, won Best Actor for its young lead Yuya Yagira. Strangely, Kore-eda has rather fallen off the festival A-list in recent years, which has nothing to do with the standard of his work. Though they're among his most acclaimed films, "Still Walking" (2008) and "I Wish" (2011) both had low-profile international premieres in Toronto. "Air Doll" made it to Cannes, but was relegated (some might say deservedly) to the Un Certain Regard strand. His return to the Competition fold this year is more in line with his auteur standing, which critics have kept elevated all along.
The buzz: Quietly confident. Kore-eda has enjoyed such acclaim in recent years for films that haven't had the benefit of a major festival spotlight that his return to the Palme league after nine years' absence feels less like a reprieve for the director than Cannes itself playing catch-up. Meanwhile, the fact that "I Wish" has only been released in most territories in the last year means that Kore-eda is entering the festival still warm with critical affection.
The odds: Cannes betting expert Neil Young currently places "Like Father, Like Sun" among the frontrunners for the Palme, with odds of 7-1, which sounds about right to me. Indeed, I'm tempted to take a flutter on it myself. I can easily imagine jury president Steven Spielberg taking a shine to Kore-eda's gentle, emotionally direct approach to family portraiture -- particularly if it continues his last film's subtle brush with sentimentality. Even if you're not among the director's most devout followers, his best films are hard to take against; unlike the work of more aggressive stylists in the lineup, this could be a solid consensus choice for the jury.
The premiere date: Saturday, May 18.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we'll be sizing up the final Asian filmrst of two Japanese entries in this year's Competition lineup: Takashi Miike's "Shield of Straw."
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