The Tokyo-set drama “Like Someone in Love” opens with a one-sided telephone conversation, yet the speaker is nowhere to be found. The camera focuses on a group of people at a bar, but none of them speaks the words we hear. The effect is disorienting and curious, and sets the tone for a film that consistently dangles the full story just out of reach.
That formula can add compelling mystery, but it can be tricky. When Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami gives too little information, audiences might find it difficult to invest emotionally in the film’s outcome.
The story follows Akiko (Rin Takanashi), the childlike woman whose disembodied voice opens the film. She is a college student and a part-time prostitute, a fact she wisely keeps from her volatile and jealous fiance, Noriaki (Ryo Kase). Although she’s exhausted from studying and from arguing with Noriaki, and although her grandmother is in town, Akiko’s pimp forces her to take a job an hour outside the city. This particular client, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), is an elderly professor who comes across like a Japanese Wilford Brimley. He’s paternal and much more concerned with feeding Akiko his homemade soup than getting her into the sack. He seems to stutter and blush when she heads for the bedroom, which makes one wonder what exactly he thought he was paying for. In other words, he turns out to be totally harmless.
He also turns out to be problematic when Noriaki sees the pair together. But a lie — that Takashi is Akiko’s grandfather — puts the two in a precarious position given Noriaki’s temper and martial arts knowledge.
This all unfolds slowly and methodically. Much of the film takes place inside cars, which seems to be Kiarostami’s set of choice. These scenes, and indeed all of the filmmaker’s shots, appear framed to perfection. When Akiko rides in the back seat of a taxi listening to countless guilt-inducing messages from her grandmother, the fluorescent lights of Tokyo wash over her face, which alternates between emotionless and anguished.
As Takashi drives his old Volvo, the shot is so tight, the viewer can see little beyond his face. The effect is distressing, as if some dangerous, collision-causing element is just out of view. Maybe that feeling stems from the fact that, like many of Michael Haneke’s films, there’s something unsettling about the quietude in Kiarostami’s movies. The actions look banal, but there seems to be a churning beneath the placid surface.
Of course, the persistence of that monotony has a flip side. Knowing so little about these characters, their conversations might seem trivial. It’s anyone’s guess whether Akiko is working as a prostitute out of necessity; what she ever saw in the abusive Noriaki; what exactly Takashi was expecting from his evening with Akiko. Motives — with the exception of Noriaki’s raging jealousy — remain stubbornly opaque.
Maintaining an air of mystery can work for a filmmaker, but he has to give a little along the way. Kiarostami begins the movie by deliberately confusing the audience, and he never draws us much closer to the truth. The camerawork may be meticulous, but the facts remain a blur.
Unrated. At Landmark E Street Cinema. Contains adult themes. In Japanese with English subtitles. 109 minutes.