Critics love Abbas Kiarostami. The Iranian director doesn’t have a Rotten Tomato rating below 71%, a feat few Hollywood legends are able to boast. His newest film, Like Someone in Love, has all the hallmarks of a Kiarostami classic with its use of confined spaces, enigmatic endings and scenes in cars. But this time his film is likely to split opinion rather than receive universal praise.
Kiarostami continues his recent trend of filming outside of Iran. While 2010’s Certified Copy was filmed in passionate Italy, Like Someone in Love is set in measured Japan. Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a student who moonlights as a call girl, becomes caught up in a Shakespearean love triangle between her jealous boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) and retired sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) who she visited the night before.
The opening scene channels the Martin Scorsese quote that “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what is out of it.” In a Tokyo restaurant full of customers and background chatter, the audience listen to one side of an unseen phone conversation, thrown into the middle with no context to wonder who is talking, what are they talking about and why is this woman is lying? Only after engaging with the situation are answers awarded. Kiarostami shows how the life of a character doesn’t start after the title sequence or end with the credits but goes beyond them. This may explain why he wrote such a sudden ending that will leave some unsatisfied.
The director uses well-placed camera angles throughout to add new perspectives on simple scenes. When Akiko goes over to Takashi’s and gets into his bed, the camera focuses on the professor sitting by the door not the schoolgirl. Akiko is only seen in the mirror in the corner. The success of these tricks shows Kiarostami’s incredible gift for interesting filmmaking and elevates what is quite a straightforward plot into something worth watching.
He also shows incredible skill in his portrayal of Japan as a normal country. There are no Harajuku or Kawaii-styled girls walking across the screen or wide shots of the Shibuya street crossing. Tokyo is portrayed in a un-touristy, everyday manner that makes it appear universal and more about humanity than specifically Japanese culture. It is a people story that just happens to be set in Japan.
In fact the entire film has a very un-Japanese feel to it – probably because Kiarostami is an outsider. Like Someone in Love includes many scenes of strong emotional impact that are far from Japan’s restrained image. When Akiko is in a taxi on her way to Takashi’s, she listens to a number of answer phone messages from her grandmother who has come to visit. The old woman waits at the station for Akiko’s call all day and each message that asks Akiko to call breaks her heart and yours.
There is also an undercurrent of violence due to Akiko’s boyfriend Noriaki. He is possessive, aggressive and suspicious. When they argue over the phone in the first scene, he asks her to count the tiles in the bathroom which he says he will check next time he is in the restaurant. Despite this behaviour being well-founded, it’s a level of extremity that you don’t associate with Japanese culture.
Despite the technical brilliance of Kiarostami, the film lacks a worthy plot. The tricks used to engage you work to an extent but it can’t excuse characters fulfilling tired roles of a call girl with a golden heart, a fatherly john and a jealous boyfriend, the most original moments being a case of mistaken identities when Noriaki mistakes Takashi for Akikio’s grandfather and asks for relationship advice. Later, when the drama starts to break new ground, the film abruptly stops leaving audiences unsatisfied.
This latest Kiarostami product should definitely be studied on film courses for it’s innovative use of camera work and breaking of audience expectation. But for the average moviegoer there is no engagement with the plot so the exquisite skill gets lost in looking at your watch and wondering how long is left.