Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy) once again triumphantly disrupts the natural order of mainstream cinema. With his latest offering — the sleek, dreamy yet hyperreal Like Someone in Love — Kiarostami has positioned himself as the maestro of experimental filmmaking. Transitioning from the romantic vineyards of Tuscany to the metropolitan claustrophobia of Tokyo, Kiarostami presents a vastly different side of Japan’s capital city, one that’s free of the glitz and futuristic glamor we’re accustomed to seeing. In Like Someone in Love, Tokyo’s lighted skyscrapers and frenetic pulse are barely touched upon — instead, Kiarostami is more interested in its people, wondering what lives they lead and what secrets they hide underneath their façade of cheery, social conformism. Directed with strict adherence to mise-en-scene and untainted realism, Kiarostami and his gifted trio of actors unearth the underlying woes of all urbanites, crushed by the weight of capitalistic-fueled machismo and misogyny.
The story first unfolds in an inconspicuous, high-end bar, where two college schoolmates discuss their plans for the evening. One of the girls, Akiko (Rin Takanashi), confesses to her fucshia-haired friend that she’s on the verge of breaking up with her well-meaning yet highly controlling boyfriend, Noriyaki (Ryo Kase). The two are interrupted by an incoming phone call from — you guessed it — Noriyaki himself, demanding Akiko forgoes her plans to pick up her grandmother, who is waiting at the train station. Noriyaki is a leech who wants to be sure Akiko is never too far away from him at any given time. He wants to see her before the night is over, but Akiko refuses and hangs up the phone. As a member of the audience, I felt proud that Akiko stood up for herself, but then I learned the reason why she hastily shot down Noriyaki’s request, and couldn’t help but shudder. It turns out the club is a front for an escort service, where Akiko herself is one of several call girls who’s under its employment. When her procurer boss pressures Akiko into ditching her grandmother and attending to a top client for the remainder of the night, Akiko’s timid demeanor warps into a rage, and yet her cries of indignation are futile — it’s impossible to say “no” to this boss, and although we are unsure why, the actors and screenplay subtly infer that Akiko owes a great debt to her procurer that she hasn’t fully paid off. The first segment is almost fifteen minutes long, comprised entirely of dialogue that sounds off-the-cusp and authentic, with only a handful of cuts made throughout the entire scene. Although the story behind Akiko is vague, the dialogue spoken is so alluring and engaging that it becomes impossible to turn away from her mysterious saga.
Akiko’s taxi ride to her client’s home is a sequence so perfectly executed, it must be witnessed to be believed. Akiko is shown listening to all six messages in her voice mail, the majority of which are from her grandmother who has been waiting hours upon hours for Akiko to pick her up. Her grandmother’s voice exudes positivity and patience, admitting to having faith in Akiko that she will soon come get her, but won’t think anything less of her granddaughter if she does indeed abandon her. We see Akiko’s confidence shatter, her guilt seeping in, and soon Akiko is begging her taxi driver to circle around the station to see if she can spot her grandmother. The taxi’s circling around the station is shot so seamlessly, and yet without the smoke and mirrors of Hollywood filmmaking. We see all that Akiko sees, our apprehension matching Akiko’s own, but because only Akiko knows what her grandmother looks like and we do not, the scene can only end with vagueness, as if Kiarostami is telling audiences, “You may see through Akiko’s eyes, but you have no idea who Akiko really is.” Her grandmother could have been there, or she might not have been. Either way, we’ll never know, and there’s something admittedly beautiful about that. Because Akiko has the taxi continue en route to her client, judging her actions is a matter of personal choice. Kiarostami allows us to interpret her motives without being told how and what to think.
It is in the Tokyo suburbs where we meet her client: the esteemed, elderly professor, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a man who is extremely polite and as docile a client as they come. He listens to Akiko’s stories and fascinations, patient and thoroughly engaged. Akiko, whether abiding by her role as a sexily confident call girl or simply put at ease by Takashi’s benevolence, is a chatterbox who behaves as though she’s known this man her entire life, forgoing his food, wine and sexual longing in favor of some good ol’ sleep. This confuses Takashi, but he doesn’t fight the reversal of gender dominance, and all throughout the film his fealty to Akiko never wavers. It’s all rather odd and by all accounts, we should hate Takashi for preying on a young girl, but his sweetly endearing nature gets the better of us, especially when we realize that perhaps men at his age with such finances are pressured into behaving a certain way. At least that’s what their awkward, realistically-executed encounter suggests.
The third act has us meeting Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriyaki, who mistakes Takashi for her grandfather after he drops her off at college. Ryo Kase, who plays Noriyaki, easily delivers the best performance of 2013, so impassioned by his desire to guard and protect Akiko, that your heart breaks for the pair, knowing their volatile relationship is caused by some greater societal problem. As a male, society often subtly dictates that the girl you fall in love with becomes your property, to cherish and protect forever. This, we are taught, is a byproduct of love and part of our duty as a “man,” and failure means emasculation in which we’re seen as a worthless member of the male species. Most of my gender has (hopefully) overcome such manipulative, misogynistic peer-pressuring, but who is to say all parts of the world are free from the iron grip of male-dominance, controlling all forms of livelihood, both male and female? Like Someone in Love argues that this remnant ideology, popularized in Western culture and closely tied to capitalism, still continues to seep into the very fibers of the nations, cities and people the West has influenced throughout history. Kiarostami presents his characters as tragic victims of this invisible, unspoken social dilemma.
On paper, it’s quite easy to hate Noriyaki for his abusive and domineering ways, Akiko for her dependency on men, and Takashi for his double life as a sexual deviant. And yet, via hyperreal long takes, natural dialogue, instinctual performances (Kiarostami had his actors read snippets of the script the day before shooting in order to have them elicit forth a more authentic portrayal of their character), and Kiarostami’s allowance for the space that is Tokyo to breathe and speak however it may (The film contains very little music, relying mostly on the natural background noise of Tokyo urban and suburban life), these characters come off sympathetic and utterly believable. Kiarostami only stumbles when he drifts away from Akiko after the first act, instead finding Noriyaki and Takashi more fascinating subjects to explore. Perhaps that’s Kiarostami’s way of demonstrating how frequently women in both cinema and society take backseats as soon as the men appear. In all, Like Someone in Love is a near-perfect example of experimental filmmaking with a disturbing truth to present. Such a cinematic gem makes us long for the late 1960s and 1970s, where meticulously constructed films like this frequented the multiplex. Let’s hope Kiarostami brings back such a renaissance.
Sundance Selects and IFC Films’ Like Someone in Love made its U.S. theatrical debut this past weekend in New York and West Los Angeles (at the Lammele Royal Theatre). A national rollout will soon follow, so if you are a fan of Abbas Kiarostami, international cinema, or films that have much more to say than the typical Hollywood romp, you must go see 2012’s Palme D’Or nominee, Like Someone in Love! It’s still early in the year, but I have no qualms admitting this is my favorite film of 2013 thus far. Upcoming theatrical releases, your challenge is upon you.
Here is the official trailer for Addas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love: