An affectionate and lightly humorous portrait of an elderly Japanese man and the young woman he meets through an escort agency, this latest film from the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is an attractive chamber piece which feels frustratingly incomplete.
Although I haven’t seen any other films by Kiarostami, I have seen some which are described as ‘Kiarostami-esque’. His style is extremely naturalistic, and he tells the story at an unhurried, sedate (some might say glacial) pace, mainly through refusing to cut back the narrative space he has created for his characters.
Perhaps he is showing us that the small actions which characters perform ‘off-camera’, as if unconsciously, are more important in establishing character than the way they act during conventional plot events. Perhaps, more broadly, he is seeking to show life proceeding at the pace of life. I’m not inherently against this technique, which is virtually the antithesis of contemporary Hollywood thinking.
In formal terms, the most interesting scene comes at the beginning of the film. A static camera shows us a Tokyo bar full of couples chatting, laughing, sharing drinks. Over the background noise we hear a woman start to talk, to reel off a string of excuses to an absent lover as to why she can’t be with him that night.
During this shot, which lasts for a couple of minutes, we struggle to identify who is speaking, and, realising that no one fits the description, we wonder whether this is an internal monologue. If so, whose consciousness are we being given access to? In the event, the identity of the speaker is somewhat more prosaic, but the effect is interesting and made me wonder how it could be employed elsewhere.
By refusing to give us outright exposition, Kiarostami maintains a sense of mystery about the scenario. There are long shots of the young woman in the back of a taxi, listening to answering machine messages from her grandmother. Since arriving in Tokyo a few years previously, the she seems mournful about the direction her life has taken – not so much that she’s taken to prostitution, more that she has lost her role models and parental figures.
This sets the scene for her subsequent meeting with a lonely, older man, played with a mixture of worldweariness and mischievous humour by the veteran Japanese actor Tadashi Okuno. He seems more interested in companionship than sex, and their relationship evolves into surrogate grandfather and granddaughter.
So far so good. However Kiarostami, having established the tone and introduced the characters, takes his foot off the pedal roughly halfway through. The film becomes more conventional, more concerned with character interplay and coincidence. The longueurs start to feel repetitive and I found myself glancing at my watch.
Another problem is that, in contrast to the old man, the character of the young woman feels unrounded, less than fully realised. Her boyfriend, an immature and violent mechanic, is also fairly two-dimensional.
Kiarostami’s visual sense is superb, and he portrays the ambient sights and sounds of contemporary Tokyo very well: the shift of reflected neon across a taxi passenger’s face, school songs floating from an nearby open window, even just the drone of traffic passing and repassing in the street. The benefit of such directorial sensitivity is to make the screen seem less like a barrier or projection, and more like a window into lives other than our own.
I admire Kiarostami’s aesthetic. However, Like Someone in Love feels rather slight, and a sudden ending (although coming at the right point in the narrative) leaves it frustratingly unresolved.
(France/Japan, 2012, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)