Saturday, March 30, 2013

ABANDONED THEATER: Like an Observer in Love, Through a Window

This review/essay features spoilers, but it is not a film that can be ruined by knowing the plot because it is not a plot-based film. But I feel obligated to warn you.

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is the mastermind behind many of the great art house films of the last 40 years[i]. His latest film, Like Someone in Love, is produced with Japanese and French money and is filmed in Tokyo. Not only does Kiarostami continue his international tour of the last few years, but he also plays with the common theme in his career—what roles do people play?[ii]

This time around, with Like Someone In Love, he runs with Japanese culture mixed with worldly themes. And again, Kiarostami has created a masterful film. The cast of characters features an old professor (Takashi, played by Tadashi Okuno), a young call girl (Akiko, played by Rin Rakanashi), her obsessive boyfriend (Noriaki, played by Ryo Kase), the professor’s nosy neighbor, and the people each of these characters pretend to be throughout the film’s runtime. Most of the story takes place inside cars and in the meandering moments between what we usually take for plot. After anything significant happens in this film, the characters spend time driving from one location to another, and in those in-between moments, we learn more about them than any other time.

Akiko is ashamed of her job as a high class prostitute, as can be seen at numerous moments, but not least of all when she asks her taxi driver, who is taking her to the professor to “escort,” to drive around the same statue several times because her grandmother is standing there, waiting for her. She has no intention of seeing her grandmother, but she cries thinking about abandoning her family for her job, feeling quite powerless about the situation. Of all of the great, quiet sequences in this film, this one is the most beautiful and the least ambiguous—a great moment to gain bearings in such an ethereal film.

Takashi is a former college professor of sociology and a book translator. These professions speak directly to the film’s complex meaning, since it is a different society and language from Kiarostami’s own and it deals with the way people act with one another. Takashi and Akiko first meet one another awkwardly in the elder’s apartment. Akiko uses the restroom and comes out a different woman, one of her two major roles, playing the character of high class escort for the old man, who is treating her like he would someone on a casual date or a polite get-together. He has no intention of sleeping with her as far as I can tell. They discuss art and life, and Akiko grows tired and goes to bed before having any wine or dinner that Takashi has prepared for her. Takashi wants companionship, for he is very lonely as we learn later from his neighbor.

Then he takes her home the next day. He meets her abusive and wild fiancé, Noriaki, a mechanic who quickly offers to fix Takashi’s car because there is a basic misunderstanding—he believes Takashi is Akiko’s grandfather, and while Takashi does not tell him that he is not her grandfather, he doesn’t fight the assumption either. Their daily adventures continue together, and the themes of the film start clicking at about this point. Takashi has taken the role of grandfather believably, and he shows to be a naturally paternal figure. But it is a false role nonetheless. She is Akiko’s john, not her grandpa.

A lot of what we see of the characters comes from behind windows or off of mirrors, screens of glass, and this is especially true in the car. Even in Takashi’s apartment, we see Akiko reflected from his TV screen for a while. The transparent or reflective surfaces give us glimpses into the souls of these characters, into the hearts of their sadness (or sadness of their hearts?), and especially the lies they tell. Each character plays a role, as we do in real life. Takashi plays the role of Akiko’s grandfather, Akiko doesn’t resist and uses Takashi as an elderly/paternal/maternal figure in lieu of her own abandoned grandmother, and Akiko’s fiancé believes in the traditional role of a husband as the provider and master of the household. Takashi sees the flaws in their relationship, but as most grandparents and parents find, they have very little influence in how they directly affect the lives of children and young people. Rather, they are left to pick up the pieces and care for them. And Takashi does this for Akiko, until the abrupt and chaotic end of the film.

There is a small, important moment late in the film, where Takashi picks up Akiko after the girl has been hit by Noriaki. He brings her home and goes to the pharmacy to get her medicine. Akiko has a discussion with Takashi’s nosy neighbor, who looks at Akiko at first from behind a sheer curtain, and always through the window, even they are engaged in conversation about how much the woman loves Takashi and cares for her very real mentally handicapped brother. We learn from the woman and her constant gazes at the Takashi residence that his wife has been gone for a long time and his daughter never visits. Again, he is supremely lonely. Even the woman in the window assumes Akiko is Takashi’s granddaughter, so the ruse is complete. Until Noriaki arrives at Takashi’s home.

We, the audience, are like the woman in the window. We watch these characters live their lives, and are powerless to affect them. Takashi, who is in the midst of the action, is also powerless. We, in the audience, are always living vicariously through the characters in movies. Like Someone in Love is no different. We care for these sad characters, and even get to see Noriaki at his best and worst, being kind of condescendingly helpful and wildly violent[iii], to show his dynamism, and in the end, Kiarostami slaps us in the face with one of the most violent climaxes I’ve ever seen. And there was no blood.

Noriaki is demanding to enter Takashi’s home, to get to Akiko, and he pounds on the door and screams. Children playing can be heard. The woman in the window and her brother can be heard. And as Takashi nervously looks out a window, a brick flies through it, crashing through the barrier between him and the abuser. Tashaki falls to the ground, and it is unclear whether he was hit or not. That barrier between us and Takashi is also broken, as represented through that window and every screen or barrier between characters, since we are watching through a screen as well. We play roles just as Takashi and Akiko do. Kiarostami reflects real life to his audiences, and he always has. The metaphor might be at its strongest here, in his latest film.

The window is broken. The film is over. The end.

I give Like Someone In Love a lite 9 out of 10.

[i] In 1990, Abbas Kiarostami made the pseudo-documentary Close-Up, which is one of the most brilliant combinations of documentary filmmaking and staged drama filmmaking in the history of the art forms. He won the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious grand prize award (Palme d’Or) in 1997 for Taste of Cherry. His long career continues to produce great films—arguably his best, Certified Copy, came out in 2010. Certified Copy deconstructed marriage and the roles that husbands and wives fill, even through two relative strangers. Juliette Binoche and British opera singer William Shimell played opposite one another in Kiarostami’s first internationally produced film. Kiarostami continues his international tour, much as Woody Allen has in the last decade, and this time his focus is in Tokyo instead of Tuscany, as it was in Certified Copy.

[ii]  The meta-theme of roles ties wonderfully into films and Kiarostami is the king in this regard. Great filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Michael Haneke have expressed admiration for his art.  And it is not hard to see why. Kiarostami’s vision is uniquely his own, and while he has riffed off of the themes of others (See Certified Copy through the lens of Linklater or Wong Kar Wai and much older directors, and the inspirations are there) his vision is always unique and never a retread. He takes inspiration and runs with it.

[iii] Off-topic/meta-moment: I love lovely adjectives and I use too many.

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