Photo caption: Rin Takanashi stars as Akiko in “Like Someone in Love.” Photo credit: IFC Films.

Even though it’s a French production helmed by an Iranian director, “Like Someone in Love” remains purely Japanese in cinematic storytelling. The celebrated, Tehran-born, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami seems intuitively familiar with the mores of the Japanese and displays his cultural knowledge through characters who never reveal their true identities. Underscoring the custom of leaving something unsaid to be discerned by someone else, Kiarostami’s tale features a classic Japanese societal convention: obscurity.

At the movie’s opening, the sounds of a bar — tinkling glasses, tipsy giggling — swirl beneath the whining of a young woman’s disembodied voice arguing with someone who can’t be heard. From the beginning, Kiarostami creates this mode of ambiguity. With two invisible characters engaged in a one-sided conversation, it sets the tone for a story about misidentification due to murkiness.

Tadashi Okuno as Takashi (with Akiko) in "Like Someone in Love." Photo credit: IFC Films.
Tadashi Okuno as Takashi (with Akiko) in “Like Someone in Love.” Photo credit: IFC Films.

Several minutes later, the camera reveals Akiko (Rin Takanashi) quarreling with her boyfriend on her cell phone. A Tokyo university student who moonlights as a paid escort, Akiko also finds time for the possessive Noriaki (Ryo Kase) who jealously monitors her every move.

Meanwhile, her pimp (a middle-aged man whose bland looks gives him the appearance of an accountant) urges her to spend the night with a new client. Akiko balks; she’s tired, her grandmother’s in town, and she doesn’t feel like working. But her pimp is insistent. This client is personally important to him. Even as Akiko protests, he walks her down the stairs and tucks her into a waiting taxi.

Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima brilliantly captures the busy ambience of an all-night city teeming with neon. On her way to the client, Akiko’s face presses against the window reflecting the flashing lights that the cab passes.

Anxiously watching from his apartment window, the client, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), is constantly interrupted by phone calls seeking his expertise as a respected professor and translator. When Akiko arrives, she becomes intrigued with a painting on his wall that her family also happens to own a copy of. Takashi then tells her the history of the painting before a game of tug-of-war ensues. Having prepared a soup popular in Akiko’s hometown, he wants her to share the dinner with him. But Akiko wants to go to bed and get down to the purpose of her visit.

The next day, as Takashi drops Akiko off at the university, a lurking Noriaki lunges at her. They struggle, but she breaks free. When he notices Takashi waiting in his car, Noriaki mistakes him for Akiko’s grandfather. From that point on, the three characters assume the identities that they thrust upon each other.

Ryo Kase as Noriaki.  Photo credit: IFC Films.
Ryo Kase as Noriaki. Photo credit: IFC Films.

Former Bellevue resident Ryo Kase is menacing as Noriaki, a high school dropout who owns his own auto shop. But a flaw in the script has him volunteering to fix Takashi’s car, and because he didn’t drive himself to where they met, he has to endure an uncomfortable ride with Takashi and Akiko that also allows them to talk. That scene begs for an explanation of why an auto mechanic with his own garage doesn’t drive h

is own vehicle.

As for pretty Rin Takanashi, her character isn’t given much to do except to feel helpless. Unable to say ‘no’ to her pimp or the abusive Noriaki, Akiko can’t even bring herself to return a phone call to her grandmother who insists on visiting her.

However, Tadashi Okuno as the professor gives a riveting performance. His anxiety over pleasing a call girl young enough to be his granddaughter is intriguing, particularly since sex does not seem to factor into his desires. Instead, he seems more interested in providing her with academic knowledge, protecting her from the temperamental Noriaki and becoming her accidental grandfather.

The tension of Akiko’s tumultuous relationship with her hair-trigger boyfriend grasping telltale flyers of her picture plastered all over town, along with the professor’s attempts to befriend her while his relentlessly ringing phone interrupts his efforts, is excruciating. And, when a nosy neighbor with a developmentally disabled brother is thrown into the mix, the situation becomes unbearable.

Nearly flawless, this movie is about three people with secrets so potent , they cause each to behave like someone in love.

“Like Someone in Love” is showing at the Egyptian Theatre in Seattle.

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