A girl is arguing on the phone with, presumably, her boyfriend. We search the frame but can’t seem to locate her. A red-haired girl then sits on a chair in the center of the screen and someone off screen passes a cellphone to her. Ah, so she’s just behind our point of view. The argument continues and the red-haired girl helps her friend reassure the over possessive boyfriend that yes, she is with her. Yes, she is in Café Teo. She passes the cellphone back and at last, the camera shows our main character. She is Akiko, a sociology student moonlighting as a call girl. Her possessive, borderline-crazy boyfriend happens to have no idea about her second identity. So maybe he’s not paranoid after all.
Akiko’s pimp, an ordinary-looking bespectacled man in his 60s, tells Akiko that she should ditch the boyfriend. “For your own sake,” he says. After that, he goes into business and tells Akiko that she should take an hour-long taxi ride now, there’s an important client waiting for her. Akiko insists that she wants to see her grandmother, who is visiting Tokyo for only a day and has been waiting for her since morning. Yet in the end Akiko steps into the taxi and goes to meet the client—Takashi, a retired sociology professor.
The film then follows the day of our three main characters—Akiko, the prostitute, Takashi, the client, and Noriaki, Akiko’s rough boyfriend—in real time. When Noriaki sees Akiko coming out of Takashi’s car in the morning outside of her university, he approaches the car. Mistaking Takashi for Akiko’s grandfather, he introduces himself and lets himself inside the car. Both Akiko and Takashi play their roles, deceiving Noriaki for a few hours.
The film is wholly composed of long, long takes and long, long dialogues. Not an intention to confuse, but more to engage and make believe. From the very beginning you are already warned, with the camera not shooting from more than three or four angles in the first fifteen minutes. Director Abbas Kiarostami limits your view, allowing you to see what’s happening from one static angle. You get the feeling that something else is happening off screen, you know, you’re dying to get the camera to move, but it doesn’t. The camera never shows anything Kiarostami doesn’t want you to see, and that’s exactly why this film works. There’s a scene where Akiko undresses inside Takashi’s bedroom, with us only seeing her clothes being discarded one by one onto the carpeted floor. Takashi walks in and sits on a chair and we can see Akiko’s reflection on the TV screen beside him, in her underwear, inviting. Alluring. Seducing. But the blurry figure on the TV screen is all we are permitted to see.
Since we are suddenly chosen to be witnesses of these characters’ lives on one particularly eventful day, we don’t really have the time to dwell into each character’s background. Why has Akiko let her grandmother wait for her all day in the cold and later change her mind in the last minutes? What’s the deal with this old professor eager to play husband for this young prostitute, serving dinner for her an hour before midnight? But none of those things matters much in the end. Takashi seems to be a respected professor in his field, and he’s busy. People keep calling and leaving him messages, he is important and much needed and yet he refuses to do anything but care for Akiko on that day. He impatiently tries to hang up a call from a colleague, he disconnects his landline telephones, and chooses to give all his attention to Akiko. Does he do this with every other escort girl?
One character that we can easily berate since the start is Noriaki. This monster of a boyfriend sounds so ridiculous, even waiting for her girlfriend in front of her campus, stopping her before she goes to class, interrogating with no kindness in his eyes and gestures. But then he introduces himself to the man he thinks is the grandfather of his girlfriend, he talks, and we realize he’s not the monster we judge he is. Yes he’s violent and we wonder why Akiko has been sticking to him, but he is honest. In fact, the only honest character. While Takashi and Akiko play their little grandfather-granddaughter drama, Noriaki is being nothing but truthful.
The role-playing of the characters certainly reminds one of Certified Copy, which was shot in Italy, and even though Certified Copy is often lauded as a masterpiece, I actually enjoyed Like Someone in Love way more. Kiarostami discussed roles and rehearsed with actors a lot, encouraged them to voice their opinions, things that are apparently not very common in Japan and this collaborative approach has sure contributed a lot to the film.
Like Someone in Love has a certain mood, something that might not be for everyone, but it sure worked for me, and the gorgeous visuals undoubtedly helped. That blurry figure of Akiko on the TV screen is especially memorable. It is a seductive, exquisite work, closed with a perfect ending (I really can’t think of a way the film could have ended better) and of course, the flawless Ella Fitzgerald song.