Losing to Japan: Kiarostami Falters
It’s easy as an audience-member to be swept up in the allure of Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema of precisely modulated emotional power. Kiarostami milks contextual layers of his characters’ mutable objectives in long dramatic sequences that catch you off guard. Nothing is taken for granted. Every surface directly supports each character’s inner and outer life. In one such sequence, Kiarostami returns to his signature interior-automobile space as a semi-public-semi-private staging ground for an intimate socially effected exchange of culturally divergent ideas.
The ex-patriot Iranian auteur of such gems as “Taste of Cherry” (1997) and “Certified Copy” (2010) has a beguiling knack for blending seamless exposition with subtle character revelations. Still, no filmmaker is above making errors of judgment. Kiarostami makes a big one. A theatrically hamstrung narrative goes abandoned to an ambiguous ending that leaves the audience feeling cheated rather than justified for sharing in the experience.
Set in modern day Tokyo, “Like Someone in Love” promises an indigenously Japanese social polemic relating to a young college-girl prostitute, her abusive loose-cannon boyfriend, and a mild retired college professor who hires the girl for a night — more out of loneliness than lust. The doddering old man has gone to the trouble of making a soup native to the region of Japan where the young prostitute is from. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t like the soup her grandmother used to make for her when she was a child. She just wants to sleep.
An axiom about minimalism states that a narrative subject needs to be richly, even over-informed in order for the stripped-down skeletal structure to express the weight of the artist’s intended thematic implications. Picasso’s sketches are significant for what he purposefully left out. Bodies leap from the surface with expressive movement. “Like Someone in Love” upbraids thematic strands that it doesn’t bother to apprehend. No good.
Still, the film’s opening sequence is beautifully composed. Two girlfriends talk in a restaurant bar owned by their businessman pimp. The camera angle is low. The influence of Kiarostami’s auteur muse Yasujiro Ozu is firmly on display. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) — one of the film’s three interchangeable protagonists — doesn’t get a joke her friend tells her about two millipedes on their wedding night. Akiko is a naïve girl going wherever the world takes her. Exposition seeps out. The social setting is public. “No phones in the toilets,” her boss tells Akiko when she attempts to take her cellphone conversation with her to the bathroom. She fights on the phone with a boyfriend that “only causes her pain.” Her concerned boss advises her to “end it with the boy.” Unlike an average stereotyped pimp, he cares about Akiko as a person, perhaps as much as a family member. The pimp-whore relationship has a father-daughter quality.
Akiko’s assignment for the night is to entertain Watanabe Takashi (well played by Tadashi Okuno), a famous author, translator, and retired college instructor. Night turns to day. Takashi drives Akiko to college where she has a test. From his parked car Takeshi watches Akiko’s boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) accost her on the stairs. Soon, Noriaki is seated inside the elderly Takashi’s car asking the man he believes to be Akikio’s benevolent grandfather for permission to marry Akiko. Takashi advises against it. The unpredictable Noriaki remains contrite, but his flashpoint temper will return.
Third-act failure is not what you’d expect from Abbas Kiarostami. But the literal window that shatters to announce the film’s climax, arrives without a necessary crisis decision that would finally identify the story’s protagonist, and deliver the characters and audience to a catharsis worthy of the drama that has come before.
Not Rated. 109 mins. (C-) (Two Stars – out of five/no halves)