When we first meet fresh-faced, girl-next-door type Akiko (actress Takanashi Rin, who played the “pink” team member in several “Power Rangers”-esque TV shows), she’s sitting in a Tokyo cafe arguing with someone on her cell phone. As mere observers, we aren’t privy to the other side of the conversation, but we eventually figure out that Akiko is verbally fencing with her overly jealous boyfriend. This one-sided, information-light style of storytelling is part-and-parcel to Like Someone in Love, the low-key new drama from award-winning Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Certified Copy).
Leaving his native Tehran far behind, Kiarostami rests his camera outside the window of that cafe in Tokyo and slowly, almost voyeuristically introduces us to the mysterious life of Akiko. Akiko’s boyfriend doesn’t seem to trust her in the slightest. And maybe he’s got a reason. She’s obviously making up lies to assuage him, pretending to be out with friends when she’s clearly working. But what does she do? As the extended opening scene closes out, Akiko’s “boss” sends her to meet a client on the outskirts of Tokyo. Akiko, it would seem, is working as an escort.
Her client for the night turns out to be an elderly professor named Takashi (81-year-old stage actor Okuno Tadashi in his first film role, believe it or not). Akiko’s profession becomes unavoidably clear when she disrobes and climbs into Takashi’s bed. But the old guy doesn’t seem interested in sex. Instead, he busies himself preparing dinner for her, talking with her and playing old jazz records to her.
The next morning, Takashi gives Akiko a ride back into central Tokyo, where she is a university student. There, the two cross paths with Noriaki (Kase Ryo, Letters from Iwo Jima), Akiko’s previously unseen boyfriend, who appears to display a very different attitude in person.
There’s precious little plot to be found in Like Someone in Love. It’s really just a three-person character study done with elegance, composure and a minimum of fussy effort. Kiarostami shoots and edits in a style known as—to steal a couple fancy, French, film school words—mise-en-scène, as opposed to montage. There are few cuts, almost no extraneous camera moves. Once the director finds a position he likes, he sets his camera down and lets the scenes play out in real time. This unobtrusive, minimalist style is designed not to distract from the reality of the situation. As a result, each shot becomes a universe unto itself, with characters wandering in and out of frame, dialogue taking place on and off screen, and viewers left blissfully alone to ponder just where their attentions should be wandering. The level of craftsmanship is high here. As is the burden on the audience’s artistic patience.
With little plot and next to no action, viewers are forced to simply pay attention to the actors and what they’re saying. Like Someone in Love is primarily a collection of conversations between people who don’t know one another. The point of it all is to stress the idea that no one really understands us, as we rarely understand ourselves. In any given situation, we’re all just playing the role we think we’re supposed to. Is Akiko a hooker with a heart of gold or an emotional chameleon? Is Takashi a lonely old man or a closet lecher? Is Noriaki an abusive jerk or a confused Romeo? The key lies in the quiet details that Kiarostami lingers over: phone messages, small jokes, random confessions.
Slender and slippery, Like Someone in Love keeps viewers riveted, just waiting for some intimate revelation to break free. Truthfully, though, it’s just as hard to pass moral judgment on these people at the end as it is in the beginning. The script asks viewers to fill in most of the background with their own imaginations. And frankly, the abrupt ending leaves much business unfinished. Has Kiarostami withheld too much about these characters and their situation? For many viewers, the answer is undoubtedly, “Yes.” But those who’ve witnessed the Iranian master’s past efforts won’t be too put off by the elusive nature of this melancholy peek into the windows of three enigmatic people just trying to figure out who they’re supposed to be.