The last time our invisible narrator (perhaps director João Pedro Rodrigues himself) saw Macao, it was a Portuguese city that happened to be in China. When he sees it this time, he cannot find a single person who speaks Portuguese. It is the most densely populated city in the world, he says, and he doesn’t hesitate to add that it is also the one that can make you the loneliest.
Indeed, our protagonist has no name, preventing a connection even with the audience; he has just a voice and a handful of questions and memories. He’s looking for “Candy,” but either Candy’s phone is off, or our narrator forgets his, or he gets lost on the way to the meeting place, and they never find each other. It really should not be as hard as it is, but nobody in Macao speaks Portuguese, so even asking to borrow a cell phone or requesting directions is impossible.
The city that the narrator grew up in is alien. The market is full of signs in a language he does not read, people he does not recognize pose for pictures, and artwork that is distinctly Chinese in aesthetics is shown with monologues about loneliness and disappointment, further proving that the city’s familiarity has disappeared. If our narrator was not a lonely, isolated dreamer, he would not be anything at all. In fact, he barely is: he won’t grant the audience the most basic courtesy of letting us see his face.
Not terribly far away is Tokyo, the densely-populated metropolis that hosts Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone In Love.” Kiarostami’s film also concerns itself with loneliness in the big city, but to Kiarostami, the city does not need to change for the characters to be unable to penetrate it. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is as lonely as the narrator of “Macao.” She refuses to return her grandmother’s calls, she prostitutes herself in the hope of making a connection, and she even considers marriage so she will have something to hold onto. Still, Kiarostami is quick to let the audience know that Akiko’s conversations and efforts are illusions. There is a long scene near the beginning of the film in which Akiko silently rides around Tokyo in a taxi, only able to experience the city at one remove, through a window. The energy and vivacity of the city is not for her. A statement about the population density of Tokyo would mean nothing, because to Akiko, the city is merely a lonely home.
“The Last Time I Saw Macao” never creates an illusion. Our narrator readily admits the city’s change, his own loneliness, and the repeated botched meetings — always due to some kind of cultural barrier — make it clear that we have an honest portrait of an admitted loner. Akiko is desperate not to admit her loneliness, always hiding behind something, be it a fake identity, another person, or a window. “Like” is the key word in the title; not actually someone in love, just acting like someone who is. We get to see her, follow her around for the day, because she wants us to believe how normal she is.
The narrator of “Macao” takes another approach by hiding, alienating us as if he knows we never knew Macao either. Akiko welcomes us into her world, hoping that by not obviously trying to hide anything we might think she is not hiding anything at all. We want to connect with Akiko because we can see her trying hard to connect with anyone, but we are not allowed. Her universal feeling begins to be unique to her, and nobody else is granted entrance into her world. Rodrigues and co-director João Rui Guerra da Mata throw us into their city, but they use a dreamy, almost impressionist sequence of images, one with little concern for distinctions between fiction and reality and no concern at all for cinematic space. We feel just like the protagonist, staggering aimlessly around a world that we should know better than we actually do. We have as much information as the narrator, and we also have no idea what to make of it. By keeping us away from his isolation, the narrator actually forces us to experience it, and our isolation never intersects with his, but we know it is shared. In this way, his specific loneliness becomes quite universal.
Elsewhere, Kiarostami never lets us know as much as Akiko knows; he sees loneliness as something invisible but universal. It’s the reason the professor pretends to be Akiko’s grandfather, as if suggesting a connection could create one. It’s the reason Akiko is more of a girlfriend experience than a prostitute, hoping that conversation will make everything else a little less lonesome. Only the neighbor near the end of the film is able to wear her loneliness on her sleeve, as the characters of “Macao” do. It is no coincidence that she watches the film unfold through windows, the same remove that Kiarostami uses to distance us. She is the honest character, and so she sees things as we do, calling upon her own human experiences and acknowledging her loneliness while watching everyone else desperately try to hide it. Of course, when “Like Someone In Love” does end, the illusion is shattered, its most literal embodiment broken. We do not know what happens to the neighbor, but when the illusion breaks, she surely sees things with the same confusion and eventual realization that we do. The sound design ensures that the broken window shocks us, but we have always seen Akiko through windows. We finally get an honest look, and so does the neighbor, whose view was obscured by a window just a few moments ago.
Kiarostami has tackled loneliness before. His previous movie, “Certified Copy,” was about the loneliness of a British man and French woman in culturally rich areas of Italy. His “Taste of Cherry” depicts the loneliness of a man in his home country of Iran. “Macao” looks for an explanation to our loneliness while “Like Someone In Love” asks how we express it.
Neither reaches a definitive conclusion. That would be far too simple. “Macao” uses the city as a symbol of specificity, a reason for the loneliness, but “Like Someone In Love” uses the city as a symbol of universality — proof enough that there is no definitive conclusion to reach. That two radically different films can both comment so profoundly on loneliness suggests their universality; looking at the two films together complicates and confirms their specificity. These two films, polar opposites thematically and formally, are only different for as long as you refuse to let them connect.
Forrest Cardamenis is a Cinema Studies undergraduate at NYU and aspiring film journalist. You can read his blog here or follow him on Twitter at @FCardamenis. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.