Like Someone in Love, one of the final films of celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, is something like an antidote to this week’s film, Lost in Translation. Like a chemical antidote, it has certain properties in common with its counterpart—it’s about a platonic romance between an lonely, aged man and a very young, equally lonely woman in Japan—but reverses some of the deleterious effects of that counterpart with complementary elements. If Lost in Translation crafts a portrait of Tokyo and its denizens as alienating, inscrutable, and quaint, Like Someone in Love uses its story about two Tokyoites to talk about alienation, inscrutability, and quaintness as universal conditions.
The story of the film, conveyed in no more than five scenes, concerns the development of the relationship between the elderly Professor Wantanabe [Oduno Tadashi] and the young sex worker Akiko [Takanashi Rin]. Over the course of two days, the pair doesn’t exactly become close, but the old man cares for the troubled woman in ways unexpected and unasked. As viewers, we learn relatively little about either the professor or Akiko, who would seem to be our protagonist. The film opens with an interior shot of a bar where Akiko is sitting at a table, but we don’t see her; we only hear her. “I’m not lying,” she says as the film opens, and as she continues we search the shot for the source of the voice. The shot is held for a long time before we get a reverse shot of Akiko, speaking on her cell phone with her jealous boyfriend Noriaki [Ryo Kase], to whom she is in fact lying.
This methodical pace and withholding of expected visual information is typical of Kiarostami’s work, and it forces us to become more active as spectators, searching the image for the visual information promised on the soundtrack. Throughout the film, information is delivered obliquely or later than expected: in the cab ride on the way to Wantanabe’s home, Akiko suspects she sees her grandmother, whom she has stood up, waiting for her in a plaza. She asks the cab driver to circle around again, but neither she nor we can move beyond the taxi cab. As the cab pulls away and Akiko starts to cry, we are left wondering whether she saw her grandmother there or not.
The following scene is the first awkward encounter between Watanabe, a widower who seems to just want company [but who can know for sure?], and Akiko. Discussing a familiar painting on the wall, Akiko shares that her grandmother always used to say she looked like the woman in it, and mirrors the woman’s pose to prove it. She then utters what, if this were the kind of film that had slogans, would be the film’s slogan: “Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t tell me I look like someone else.”
At the core of this film is identity: the problem of knowing yourself and being known by other people, being known through their ersatz images of you. Akiko is unhappy working for her pimp, Hiroshi [the actor Denden], but her relationship with her boyfriend would clearly be a toxic one whether or not she were a sex worker. Each of these people understand her through representations they see or construct of her, as do we—the frame of Kiarostami’s often very constricted camera. What must be an entire quarter of the film takes place within Wantanabe’s car, a scene in which Akiko and the old professor hoodwink Noriaki into believing Wantanabe is Akiko’s grandfather—it borders on tense, as close as the film gets to a “typical” movie emotion.
Suspense, thrill, and even humor are not really among Kiarostami’s interests in Like Someone in Love, however. By creating characters whose most emotional moments happen in offscreen space and whose reality is often undercut by their comparison to images, Kiarostami ironically makes them seem more human, relatable in their obscurity. The withholding of complete access to the main characters’ inner lives is a point Lost in Translation arrives at, with its famous final scene, but for Kiarostami it is a starting point. In Lost in Translation, a culture is represented as inaccessible, and the film lacks a strong sense of curiosity about bridging that gap. Like Someone in Love is about this “knowability gap” between people, and because of that, earns its sometimes [especially at the end] antagonizing ambiguity.