Kiarostami at NYFF 2012
Photo by Eric Kohn

There's a lot of driving and talking in "Like Someone in Love," Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's latest production, but beyond that's only the surface. Following last year's Tuscany-set "Certified Copy," the new movie -- which premiered in competition at Cannes last May and screens at the New York Film Festival this week -- finds the director in the vastly different turf of Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast. But even far away from home, Kiarostami is still Kiarostami.

The trim story follows young prostitute Akiko (Rin Takanashi) on assignment to visit retired academic Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). The next morning, Takashi assumes a parental role as he carts the woman around town, helps her evade her moody fiancé (Ryo Kase), and discusses his life philosophies. The movie is a fascinating mystery enacted with a deep awareness of camera movement, sound design and performances. In the U.S. for NYFF, promoting a new movie in the city for the first time in over a decade, the 72-year-old filmmaker sat down with Indiewire to discuss his intentions with "Like Someone in Love," why he prefers to work outside Iran and how he keeps looking for new challenges.

Outside of shooting in Japan, what felt new to you about this production?

It was as new as any film is when it started. Plus, in Japan everything was new -- the people, the faces, the food.

Without understanding the language, how could you tell if the actors were giving you the performances you wanted?

My aim was on one side not to neglect their culture and their specificities, but at the same time not to leave any display of Japanese culture in my film. My concern was to find out whether there were any universal qualities in them as characters.

You may have been a foreigner in Japan, but Japanese cinema isn't foreign to you. Your 2003 film "Five Dedicated to Ozu" indicates as much. I wonder if there was any aspect of Japanese cinema that inspired when you were conceiving of this story.

Well, the Japanese films that I had in mind were the classics of Japanese cinema, the ones I was familiar with. But then as I had to work in Japan, I started watching plenty of new Japanese films in order to see the actors and also to choose a DP, and I realized that they had absolutely nothing to do with my memory and my knowledge of Japanese classic cinema. And I found them much more American in a way. So I made my film with my own views and then many people told me that my film was more Japanese than the present Japanese cinema.

READ MORE: Cannes Review: Abbas Kiarostami Delivers a Tantalizing Mystery With 'Like Someone in Love'

Did that feel like a success to you?

That was exactly my only promise to my producer. I said one can never commit oneself to making a good film -- you cannot say whether your film is good or not -- but the only commitment I do accept is the fact that my film won't show that it's been made by a foreigner or by an outsider in Japan. And I think that I did succeed in that aspect.

At the same time, because this film and "Certified Copy" involve an ambiguous relationship between two characters, it's very easy to see one being a companion piece to the other. How do you feel about that comparison?

Well, I wouldn't interfere in a view that can be the spectator's or the critic's analysis of my work, so I accept it as their point of view. But I must say that, for me, the link was not conscious at all. I didn't mean it, I wasn't aware of it. However, they are both the products of the same imagination, so there must be a relationship between the two.

Virtually all of your films require the audience to do some legwork and interpret your intentions. However, in the case of your earlier films -- like, say, "Close Up" -- much of that interpretation related to the precise conditions of Iranian society. Do you still feel that your roots inform your work?

Again, I'm not the one who can actually tell you exactly how I can be perceived or how you as an audience or as a critic can perceive the fact that I've made two films in different societies. But I think that if you take characters in the film as they are and if you don't try to put them in molds and interfere too much with their nature, characters all have their own mystery and their own ambiguity. So they are not related to one specific identity or land.

I think the current point between the character from "Close-Up" and my last two films is that they all have something to say, but they all have this very unsaid and unuttered aspect about their personalities. And I cannot express that. I think all characters have this complexity of human nature that is closer to you than truth, and so I feel compassion for the mystery and I don't think that I'm here to reveal it.

Next page: The challenges of making movies in modern-day Iran. Also: Why Kiarostami loved shooting on digital.