Like Someone In Love, the latest film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, opens at a trendy-looking nightspot in Tokyo. The camera remains static inside the busy establishment as we hear a woman talking on the phone. We peer into the scene, trying to distinguish who is speaking. It is only when we cut to another angle that we understand that the person we’ve been listening to wasn’t in our field of vision at all.
This won’t be the first time that our understanding of something will be shifted or altered over the course of the next 2 hours. Later on when we are introduced to another eye-catching interior it is presented as cluttered and claustrophobic, up until a cut – probably 10 minutes into the scene – reveals it to be only part of a much larger space. Kiarostami repeatedly delights in playing with our perception of what has and hasn’t been established.
These shifts are, in turn, a treat to behold. Background characters reveal themselves to be more than just extras, frequently moving into the foreground and taking over whole scenes. Information is dolled out sparingly through the always-precise camera work and cannily constructed screenplay. These reveals keep us engaged through a sedately paced film which even dares us to guess how seriously to take it.
But back to the start. The woman on the phone is Akiko (Rin Takanashi). She’s a student who is working as a prostitute to make some extra money. When we meet her she is talking to her suspicious boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase), afraid that he will learn the truth about her double life. She’s also trying to get out of meeting a client; her grandmother is visiting Tokyo and Akiko wants to spend time with her. Nevertheless she is coerced into a taxi that will ultimately lead her through an unusual 24 hours in which she may risk the supposed love of her life for a brand new and unexpected connection.
Akiko is driven to the home of professor Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno). Up until this time Like Someone In Love plays out as a straight-forward drama, documenting an illicit nighttime arrangement. However the ensuing encounter sees this break down as a more familial bond blossoms between the two. If there’s been a solicitation scene in a movie that defies expectations quite as much as this one, I’d be intrigued to see it. The following morning Mr Watanabe drives Akiko to campus, only for a third party to enter their little drama, pushing the transition firmly into comedic farce, albeit one that plays out at a measured 20 mph.
What it all adds up to is harder still to quantify. How much import can be derived from the film’s very title? Is there something to read into its insinuations? Is it Akiko who is like someone in love? Frequently she appears anything but, more often finding herself hard to distinguish from anyone who wanders into the narrative, a chameleon woman lost in comparisons to family members and even works of art. Maybe its Mr Watanabe, smitten with Akiko? Except his affections feel more paternal than sexual; have we misinterpreted the kind of love being referred to here, and if we have, what of it? Or is it simply a reference to the Ella Fitzgerald recording of the same name that features on the soundtrack? Kiarostami’s film prompts it’s audience to decide on the nature of something when another intention might be hiding just out of sight.
Even if there is no intention other than to delight, Kiarostami is on to something of a winner. It may move at a deliberate snail’s pace, but Like Someone In Love is never dull. The charms invoked by the director’s wry sleight of hand are matched by some warm performances. Okuno’s thoughtful, fastidious professor is a gift of a role, whilst Takanashi exudes endearing fragility as Akiko. Their miniature odd-couple odyssey through inner-city Japan is eminently watchable even if we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in traffic.
Like Someone In Love ultimately plays out as a meticulously controlled comedy that pushes lightly into the surreal. A late appearance from one of Watanabe’s eccentric neighbours is pleasingly bizarre, whilst the final scene is punctuated by Kiarostami’s most inexplicable and potentially-divisive choice yet, sending audience members back to the real world with a jolt, rather like receiving a custard pie to the face.
Very occasionally you’ll wish for a little more momentum as things come close to a grinding halt, but overall this is a quixotic journey into territory that feels at once deceptively simple and utterly strange. It is a film pocked with standout moments, from that expertly balanced opening scene to the genuinely touching moment when Akiko spots her grandmother patiently waiting for her near the station. Akiko wants so desperately to save the old woman from her futile waiting, but all she can do is stare through the taxi window, resigned to the path she is on.
If Akiko’s journey through Like Someone In Love feels out of her control, in some way predestined (surely something we all can relate to from time to time), then maybe the film’s abrupt conclusion is there to snap both her and us out of our collective reverie. Time to take control of your destiny.