“Like Someone in Love,” which the exiled Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami ended up making in Japan nearly 20 years after he conceived it, begins as the story of Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a college student who secretly works as a call girl. Exhausted after a night of study and harried on the phone by her pathologically jealous fiancé, she is pressured by her pimp in a Tokyo bar to visit an out-of-town client and sets off in a chauffeured limo. The movie swiftly sets up the first of several juxtapositions between polarities – innocence and experience, art and commerce – as garish flashes of neon reflected in the car’s windows wash over the face of Akiko who, unlike her brash friend and fellow hooker Nagisa, is woefully naïve.
She is so shamed by her extra-curricular job that she cannot bear to meet the grandmother who has traveled to Tokyo to see her, but asks the driver to circle the spot where the old woman stands patiently waiting. There’s a hint of Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” in the intergenerational breakdown.
Akiko is surprised to find that her client is a lonely, elderly professor, Takashi (wonderful veteran stage actor Tadashi Okunu), who would have likely taught her sociology at her university had he not retired. His wife has long gone – whether she died or left him is not clear – and he wants to wine and dine Akiko, but not to sleep with her.
As the movie shifts its perspective from lost girl to wise man, it confers a grace note on the pair's delicate interaction via the print hanging on Takashi’s book-lined apartment. “Training a Parrot” (1900), which depicts an adolescent girl in a striped kimono looking at a parrot on a swing, was painted by the esteemed Japanese artist Chiyoji Yazaki (1872-1947), who traveled in America and Europe, was influenced by the Impressionists and, as Takashi tells Akiko, introduced Western styles of oil painting to Japan.
Akiko shows little interest in his history lesson but recalls that an uncle gave her a copy of the painting when she was 14, and that he told her he had painted her as the girl and that she had believed it. She ties up her hair and poses in front of the picture to demonstrate the vague resemblance: Takashi has fleetingly elicited the unspoiled child in her. Need and money have corrupted her, however, and in vain she tries to seduce him, eventually falling asleep alone in his bed.
The following morning, as Takashi sits in his car, he witnesses the fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), a strung-out garage proprietor, harassing Akiko on the university steps and, mistaken by him for her grandfather, has occasion to advise the young man they shouldn’t marry, because he lacks “experience.” He later steps in, like a knight, to rescue her and brings her back to his flat.
Taking its title from the Ella Fitzgerald song that Takashi played Akiko during their evening together, “Like Someone in Love” is as purposefully elusive as most Kiarostami films, not least “Certified Copy,” which, set in Tuscany and starring Juliette Binoche, was a multivalent meditation on marriage.
The new film similarly explores the mutability of roles and identities. Is Akiko a whore or spiritually still a virgin like the girl in the picture? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is Takashi acting, unbeknownst to himself, as a lover trying to replace his wife – or is he a surrogate grandfather? (Kiarostami has a metaphor for these imponderables – is the girl in the painting training the parrot or, as Akiko once believed, is the parrot training the girl?)
Just as Noriaki first assumed Takashi was Akiko’s grandfather, so does a nosy neighbor who, peering out of a tiny window, sees Akiko on his steps and, rupturing the mood of inscrutability, tells her her entire life story at breakneck speed – it encompasses her own thwarted wish to have been married to Takashi and her entrapment as the caretaker of her handicapped brother. There may be a grain of truth in Noriaki’s paranoid “fantasy” that Takashi, acting “like someone in love,” has usurped him by bringing Akiko home. Nothing is necessarily what it seems in this beguiling movie. Thus, as a conundrum we have to try and fathom out, it warrants repeated viewings.