Editor’s Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 NYFF, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
It’s impossible to understand who a person truly is upon first meeting them. Impressions can be made, based on the context of the meeting, but you can never know the true self that lies beneath the surface. In Abbas Kiarostami’s masterful Like Someone In Love, two very different people meet by chance, but within a 24-hour period, they discover more about each other and about themselves than either of them could have possibly fathomed. Kiarostami takes what would seem like a simple character study and, with his astute direction, morphs it into an incredibly well-executed work of art that is imbued with a palpable sense of unease.
These two people are Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). Akiko is studying biology in college and conflicted over whether or not to break up with her controlling boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase). She also works at an escort service. Takashi is an elderly man, working as a translator, who lives alone.
The film opens with Akiko at the bar where her escort service is stationed. She is trying to reason with Noriaki, who wants to know her whereabouts – he doesn’t know she’s an escort, and she wants to keep it that way. She tells him that her grandmother is in town, which is true, but she is dodging her grandmother’s calls out of embarrassment over her lifestyle. Her rather understanding pimp advises her to just not answer her grandmother’s calls and to break up with her boyfriend; he also strongly encourages her to take a taxi for over an hour to an esteemed client’s home. She is resistant at first, since a part of her does want to see her grandmother, but ultimately she bends and gets in the taxi.
She falls asleep in the taxi and awakens at Takashi’s home. The gentle old man isn’t the average john – he is just a lonely guy who wants her company and for her to share a meal with him. A creature of habit by now, Akiko shakes off her sadness and snaps into character, acting coquettishly, and refuses dinner. Instead, she strips off her clothes and gets into his bed, where she falls asleep until morning.
Noriaki sees Takashi drop his girlfriend off the next day and readily assumes that he is her grandfather, getting into his car and having a heart-to-heart with him. Akiko returns to the car, and the three share an uncomfortable ride to the service station where Noriaki works. When a man recognizes Takashi from taking one of his college courses, Akiko becomes nervous that the violent Noriaki will soon realize that Takashi isn’t really her grandfather and soon start to piece her real story together.
What transpires from this point on is a breathtaking coming together of Akiko and Takashi. Both fill a certain void for the other. Akiko is alone in Tokyo and yearns for her grandmother, repeatedly listening to her voicemails and tearing up every time. She fells that she must protect her grandmother from the knowledge of how she is paying her bills. Takashi knows what she does for a living and doesn’t judge her. Instead, he offers her unconditional kindness and understanding and a familial warmth that she is lacking.
Takashi, in turn, misses his family. His neighbor tells Akiko that he has a wife and daughter, but they are nowhere to be seen. In creating these characters, Kiarostami brings forth fully realized people, ones with public and private selves and inner longings that bubble to the surface. Even Noriaki is multi-faceted. It would be simple to make this controlling character a brutish monster, and while his potential threat is definitely alluded to, he truly does harbor (albeit obsessive) love for Akiko and has some legitimate concerns about her secretiveness. Another standout in this sense is Takashi’s neighbor (Mihoko Suzuki), at times a shrew of a peeping tom, but who also has her own problems to deal with at home.
Kiarostami solidifies his auteur status, layering each shot with a queasy unease that gives the viewer an intense feeling that something awful is about to happen at any moment. He accomplishes this by fixing the camera close on his subject so that the viewer is unable to see what is going on around them, what danger is lurking. His shots are fluid, yet claustrophobic and perfectly executed. A standout shot occurs when Takashi discovers Akiko, nude in his bed. The camera stays on him as he enters his bedroom, noticing Akiko, and sits down in mild shock, facing the bed. The camera is never directly on Akiko – it remains with Takashi – but the effect of a shot-reverse-shot sequence is created as he talks to her smeary reflection in a mirror.
Like Someone In Love is a powerful meditation on people being disconnected from one another. Voicemails are left for both Akiko and Takashi that they have no intention to answer. They are both isolated from their families. And when they do connect on a level that transcends their initial encounter, they in turn threaten their very existences. Kiarostami is a masterful filmmaker and takes this encounter and turns it into something fully-realized — poignant and filled with apprehension.
The Upside: Kiarostami’s brilliant decision to track his characters with the camera to create a sense of dread throughout. Also, the actors give refreshingly naturalistic performances in their three-dimensional roles.
The Downside: This isn’t exactly a “downside,” but more of the nosy neighbor wouldn’t be a bad thing!
On the side: According to Kiarostami, Okuno had been an extra for years but never had a lead role in a film. When Kiarostami proposed a future lead role with him, he refused, preferring to stay in the background.