There’s a lot of driving and talking in “Like Someone in Love,” Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s latest production made outside of his native country, but beyond that is anyone’s guess. Following last year’s Tuscany-set “Certified Copy,” the new movie finds the director in the vastly different turf of Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast. For Kiarostami buffs, that imbues the material with a disorienting quality, but it still manages to settle into a familiar Kiarostami enigma. Even far away from home, Kiarostami is still Kiarostami.
Kiarostami drops a deceptively simple premise into the first scene and then lets it slowly ripple outward. In a lengthy shot/reverse shot sequence that opens the movie, young prostitute Akiko (Rin Takanashi) gets assigned to an elderly client of some undefined prestige. Minutes crawl by as Akiko learns of her job, gets in a car and rides to her new client’s home. The Tokyo landscape, a vibrant blend of neons and blacks, gradually comes to life through the high-contrast cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishmi (“Battle Royale”), which adds to the novelty of the production, particularly once it becomes clear that the leisurely pace isn’t exposition but rather the overall feel of the movie until its closing scenes.
Akiko eventually arrives at the home of the stately Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired academic who makes friendly small talk with the woman and makes her dinner without even bringing up the issue of sex. Nevertheless, eventually she sheds her clothes and the lights go out; an abrupt cut to the two of them in a car the next day implies the deed was done, but that’s not the point.
The rest of “Like Someone in Love” — and there’s plenty left — takes place almost entirely within the confines of the vehicle, as Takashi’s discussions with Akiko grow increasingly philosophical and loose. At one point, they pause while Akiko meets up with her fiancé Noriaki (Ryo Kase, the only name actor in the cast), an anger-prone man unaware of Akiko’s profession. He mistakes Takashi for her grandfather, and the older man plays along for a while. They drive more, talk more, part ways and reconvene for a sudden, tense incident before the credits roll. The whole thing leaves you wondering: Wait, what just happened?
But that’s key to its appeal: “Like Someone in Love” leaves you contemplating its significance long after it ends instead of while you watch it. After the first press screening at Cannes, journalists and critics expressed a mixture of enthusiasm and puzzlement in equal measures. Cinematically, the movie is extraordinarily immersive and mysterious, drawing you into its delicately constructed mise-en-scene for clues. Whether Takashi feels some familial attachment to Akiko or has some other agenda never becomes entirely clear, but the characters are so well drawn that it’s hard to care until it ends.
Aesthetically, “Like Someone in Love” bears a precise similarity to “Certified Copy” in that it predominantly involves a man and a woman in constant motion engaged in freewheeling discussion littered with clues to their identities. However, “Like Someone in Love” lacks the measured forward motion of the earlier film, and so suffers from a lack of feeling to service its analytical purpose.
But “Like Someone in Love” is too icurious for anyone to relegate it to footnote status in the filmmaker’s ever-enthralling career. The introduction of bonafide suspense in the movie’s closing moments, followed by a sudden punchline, puts a cap on an incessant loopy trajectory. While not his best work, “Like Someone in Love” is a nimble expression of Kiarostami’s appeal: He remains one of the few directors capable of pulling you into a narrative and making you question its motives at every turn. At least that aspect of “Like Someone in Love” has a familiar ring; the rest is an open book.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Lacking the definite art house appeal of “Certified Copy,” the movie should play well at festivals but faces a tough route to theatrical distribution, although Kiarostami has enough of a following that it could generate decent attention on VOD.