You know Abbas Kiarostami. You know his mastery over language of cinema, his unique style of filmmaking, and the way he captures innocence. You would find everything that goes with his name and fame in his latest movie and yet, Like Someone In Love, screened at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival, differs from all his earlier works. The story, the treatment, and above all the ambience are new and he has never shot a film in this milieu — Japan — before.
The film begins with a black screen and a murmuring sound which turns out to be a telephone conversation in which someone is desperately trying to convince someone at the other end of something. Then we see a crowded bar and a girl who is trying to communicate something in sign language to the not-yet-visible girl on the phone. The girl, it turns out, is talking to her boyfriend and trying to convince him that she is with her friends and not with “someone.” He’s not convinced. And then the girl screams and we see her on the phone for the first time. Though pale and tense, she is charming and has an innocent look. Things seem to be beyond her control and yet she is trying to sort them out. She heads towards the restroom, while an elderly man, presumably the owner or the manager of the bar passes by her and warns her, “no talking on the phone in restroom.” When she comes back, the man approaches her and asks about her plans for the night. Desperately she tries to convince the man that she has to go home because her grandmother is visiting her and next day she has to take an exam. The man insists and finally succeeds in dumping her into a taxi and sends her to someone with whom, he says, would be better for her. The girl looks helpless as the taxi leaves.
You may wonder why I am describing this in such minute detail. But this is just a fraction of what is shown on the screen. The film has about a dozen or so elaborates scenes like this and that is precisely the uniqueness, but not the greatest strength of the film.
In the next scene, the girl in the taxi is listening to seven messages on the phone, one after the other, word for word as the driver casually observes her. All but one of the messages are from her grandma, who is waiting for her at the station. The girl asks the driver to take the taxi to the station where she finds the old lady still waiting for her. After a while taxi leaves and en route, the girl falls asleep. Finally the driver drops her to the door step of a man who turns out to be an old man. The girl is not at all surprised to see him. He is a retired professor surrounded by heaps of books. While they chat, they are interrupted by someone who wants the professor to do some urgent translation on the phone. He gets rid of the guy and now invites the girl to have some soup, which he has specially made for her. Instead she decides to go to the bedroom and get started with the business for which she was hired. But the professor has something else in his mind which is not revealed till the end.
The next day he takes her to school. Her boyfriend appears at the gate of the school suddenly and reacts violently while the old man watches from his car. After a while the young man gets into his car on some pretext…
As I said earlier, why all these details? Let me confess that I myself hate film reviews where the story is described so meticulously. And here I am doing the same thing. I simply can’t resist. The way each character appears and the way each element builds the narrative with so much tireless detailing is absolutely amazing. The simplicity, the ease, the subtlety with which he manages to do this dazzles. The story unfolds mainly through dialogue, which are casual, subtle, apt and precise. Any script writer would envy Kiarostami for such dialogue which not only furthers the narrative, but also bring out all the nuances of the characters for striking dramatic effect. Hats off to Kiarostami! He does all this and also maintains the innocent tone which he is known for.
Best of all, the film doesn’t allow you to be judgmental. Instead it compels you to look at every character with curiosity and try to understand them as they are. The characters are neither good nor bad, nor do they come in shades of grey. They simply are who they are, leading lives that inevitably land them in situations which become extremely complicated. Sometimes the characters behave in ways they normally would never consider. At one point, for example, the girl tells the old man that she has told her boyfriend that her grandfather is a fisherman. The old man replies, so what, everyone has two grandpas. If one grandpa is a fisherman, the other can be a professor. This comes from a simple person with his own ethics, his own principles, who is refined, soft-spoken, and kind hearted. But here he looks shrewd and cynical, something he is not.
Near the end another character enters, a neighbor of the old man and of the same age. We don’t see her when she is introduced, we just hear her talking to the old man and asking him to leave some room for others when he parks his car. He does not bother to look at her, or even listen to her. For him, she does not exist. But she doesn’t feel the same way about him. She reveals her story through a casual chat with the girl, explaining how she was in love with the old man when they both were young. It was not reconciled. Such desperate, one-sided love stories are what the film is about, stories that are intense and demanding but with textures different for each one, in accordance with the nature of each character.
Kiarostami also excels at portraying the awkward situations his characters, either knowingly or unknowingly, find themselves in. Again the dialogue carries the scenes. So it is a play then? you might ask. Not at all! Though the dialogue shines, so does the film’s cinematic quality — these are clearly words meant to be spoken on the screen, and not on the stage. This script deserves to be a part of every syllabus for classes in screenwriting.
Like everything else, the pace of contemporary cinema has changed. These days the camera moves in every direction and shoots from every any angle, something unheard of in simpler times. The new school of filmmaking insists that images move constantly and at a mind-boggling pace. And here is Abbas Kiarostami venturing to tell his story through simple, static frames, as if flaunting the “old school.” But with his mastery of cinema language, the “old school” looks new indeed. Much credit is due to the cast’s brilliant performances. Rin Takanashi as the call girl, Ryo Kase as her boyfriend, and above all Tadashi Okuno as the professor bring Kiarostami’s creation to life.
Filmgoers, and even some film critics, can harshly judge the work of masters in the latter part of their careers; they argue that the genius is not offering anything new, especially in terms of form. This is a highly immature way of looking at things and absolutely misleading as far as understanding cinema is concerned. These filmgoers and critics fail to notice the master’s maturity in content and form because they are looking for revolutionary experimentation. But such filmmakers don’t dazzle with innovative style, instead they move the viewer with their depth of spirit and wisdom.. It is no easy task to take a story as simple as Like Someone In Love, which does not have hard-hitting drama or flashy effects, and turn it into an intense, engrossing film. The success of Like Someone in Love is enviable; filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami are called “masters” for a reason.
Edited by Peter Keough
© FIPRESCI 2012