TIFF 12: LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE

john cribbs

I'd only previously seen three Kiarostami movies - Close-Up, Taste of Cherry and Certified Copy - but from what I can tell, he really likes scenes of people tooling around in cars. And from what I've heard about movies like Ten, I'm guessing this is not much of a profound insight on my part (more an obvious statement along the lines of "I think Russ Meyer really liked boobs.") All I'm saying is, at this point in his career, the guy probably gets a pretty decent discount when he goes to rent his process trailer: even when large chunks of Kiarostami's films aren't set in cars like Taste of Cherry, they still feature distinctive, often unbroken sequences with folks piled into an automobile, like the opening (and most notably "fictional") scene of Close-Up. Like Someone in Love is no exception, featuring two extended driving jags, but unlike the determined Badii behind the wheel in Taste of Cherry, directionless student/moonlighting call girl Akiko is a constant passenger. First she takes a ride in a cab that circles her poor neglected grandmother, whom Akiko ditches in favor of a house call arranged by her pimp (Denden, so unforgettable in Cold Fish, who sadly only appears at the beginning; he also turned up in Shion Sono's new TIFF entry The Land of Hope.) Somnolent in the backseat, like a young Ozu heroine stuck in permanent stasis, Akiko allows herself to be cycled around the famous scramble crossing in front of Shibuya Station as her grandmother waits below the statue of Hachiko, like that famous faithful dog waiting patiently for someone who will never arrive. Having caught up on some sleep, she still manages to nod off as she's chauffered to class the next day by her elderly client. Nothing seems to register with her: not the guilt she obviously feels at leaving her granny stranded, or the inherent awkwardness of having a man who payed to spend the night with her give her a lift to school.

Her apathetic commutes from one place to the next are counteracted by Kiarostami, himself a passenger of sorts in this new country, and his clear fascination with every person and place the film carries him to, the camera constantly gazing just past Akiko to take in the images she's languidly dismissing. Whether it's the lights of Tokyo reflecting off the taxi windshield or the old professor's immaculately cluttered, modern yet unmistakably Japanese apartment, Kiarostami takes in each detail as if he were walking through a museum. It never feels patronizing, because he doesn't focus on the stereotypic artifacts of Japanese culture and Tokyo pop. He films the city like someone in love with Tokyo, but mainly sticks to an inexperienced tourist's sites: a dimly-lit bar, the uncharacterized streets at night, the modest apartment in suburban Yokohama, a university, an auto shop. No location or character feels fetishized like they so often do in films by foreigners who've come to Tokyo to make a movie in the last 20 years - Hal Hartley, Fran Rubel Kuzui,* Sofia Coppola, Jarmusch, Tarantino, Irritu, Gaspar No, Justin Lin, Gondry/Carax/Bong. Kiarostami instead taps into Japan through his knowledge of and reverence for its cinema, modeling the interior shooting of his own gendai-geki on the low, stationary camera of Ozu and its story on some of the most recognized staples of Japanese films (again, without any of the characters being too broad.) The director has been influenced by Japanese film in the past - the blurred line between fiction and documentary in Close-Up clearly owes a debt to Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes** - and here devotes his style to two familiar figures, the young bemused prostitute and the widowed old man, introducing a third character late in the film to embody the kind of unpredictable incendiary who's occupied so many recent movies to come out of the east.

But first he focuses on the girl and the old man, whose apartment is the destination of her initial cab ride. Just like the first 20-or-so minutes of Taste of Cherry, during which Kiarostami misleads the audience to suspect that his lead character is out cruising, this encounter suggests something devious even though Takashi's plans for Akiko turn out to be purely platonic: he just wants someone to sit down and have a meal with him. And if that weren't noble enough, he even did the cooking! His fascination with her and her blatant self-absorption recall the relationship between Shimura's Watanabe and young Toyo in Ikiru - in fact, Kiarostami has given his older character the surname Watanabe (first name Takashi, after Shimura) - although it's just as readily comparable to transactions between Tatsuya Nakadai and his granddaughter in the recent Haru's Journey. While he's not looking to learn lessons on enjoying life from her, it's plain to see that for him Akiko's allure is less sensuous than whimsical: he's assigned her some broad domestic identity that, through the introduction of pictures of his late wife, we can assume are meant to restore pleasant memories of quiet marital banalities. She falls asleep in his bed before anything sexual occurs, and he watches her for a minute before switching off the light. This reminded me of an Australian film I saw at the 2011 Toronto Festival, Sleeping Beauty,*** which was itself inspired by the Japanese novel The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata (whose work has been adapted by directors like Mikio Naruse and Kon Ichikawa) about an old man who pays to lie in bed with beautiful young sleeping virgins, so long as he doesn't touch them. While that seems harmless enough - especially if the participation of the dormant subject is voluntary - Kiarostami's somewhat ambivalent depiction of Takashi seems like his way of compromising the tenderness of classic Japanese cinema with the more aggressive attitude of modern Japanese cinema. He brings the relationship between the old professor and the student/hooker back to the implied seediness of Denden's dimly-lit escort service (somebody make a sequel with that title, please), the old man's innocent leering, by association with modern Japanese cinema alone, enough to bring to mind businessmen in cone masks witnessing all sorts of weird stuff on a stage in Shinya Tsukamoto's A Snake in June. But by having Takashi chat up Akiko about her family background and grow increasingly irritated with phone requests for on-the-spot text translations that interrupt his diligently planned dinner, Kiarostami also makes him the kind of ethical and harmless elderly character found in a pre-New Wave, pre-Oshima Japanese cinema. Ill-defined identities and sliding into new roles are themes prominent in Close-Up, as well as Certified Copy, so sliding ambiguously between illicit and harmless provides the director a loose structure in which things that are unwholesome can seem wholesome (Akiko's prostitution) and vice versa (Takashi watching Akiko sleep.) It's to Kiarostami's credit that the relationship remains so indistinct, and gets even fuzzier in the third reel, yet by referencing these tropes of Japanese films always seems like the most natural thing in the world.

The bubble is broken by the introduction of Ryo Kase as Akiko's insecure, potentially threatening boyfriend Noriaki. Having been privy to Akiko's half of a phone conversation with Noriaki in the first scene of the movie where he demands she count the tiles of the bathroom at the club she claims to be at so he can later confirm she's not lying to him, we know he's suspicious of whatever it is she does with her spare time to the point of extreme jealousy. She's managed to drive him so crazy that he doesn't even recognize the elderly man dropping her off at school as the answer to all his frustrated inquiries - he assumes he must be her grandfather. He's so desperate for any kind of insight into this girl that he starts making nice with Takashi, even laying out his suspicions in front of him, and for a while the film becomes almost like a mild screwball comedy in which Noriaki tags along for the ride, much to the fascination and amusement of Takashi and the dread and discomfort of Akiko. Kase, who had to suffer through the humiliating part of Henry Hopper's kamikaze pilot ghost buddy he plays Battleship with**** in the irritatingly awful Restless (he was also in Michel Gondry's segment of Tokyo! - he haunted me throughout the festival last year, also popping up in Takeshi Kitano's Outrage Beyond and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Penance), gives an excellent performance. I'm surprised a lot of the movie's reviews haven't mentioned him at all, because he's the best thing about it. That's not only because his presence brings comedy and suspense to a story that had up to that point been deliberately avoiding them: even though there's a potential conflict brewing once Noriaki gets involved, just sharing the screen with him make both Akiko and Takashi instantly more interesting. Akiko's reactions suddenly become real rather than mechanical, and while Takashi's convincing sort-of deception (I kept wanting to call him "the grandfather" as I was writing this) seems like mostly tact, sticking to the role of Akiko's elderly ancestor from out of town in front of an unhinged Noriaki brings his previous behavior into question. Would he have gotten his money's worth had Akiko not fallen asleep? What's his plan for her now? When are those translations getting done, anyway? Since the other two are lying to him, audience sympathy naturally veers towards Noriaki - I mean, how can we condemn his paranoid jealous-boyfriend behavior when his girlfriend is hooking behind his back? Although he arrives late and looking for a fight, he's the least cynical and therefore most charmingly nave of the three lead characters. In an interview, Kiarostami mentioned "four people" who act "like someone in love" (the fourth presumably being Takashi's doting neighbor) but to me it's Noriaki and his erratic behavior that most expressly evoke the title, and the "bumping into things" aspect of the Ella Fitzgerald song. The way Noriaki suffers and insists and insinuates himself within the group, oblivious to how he's completely changed its dynamic, to me felt like no less than Kiarostami sabotaging the quiet film with a character as risky and reckless as anyone you'd meet in a film by Kitano, Sion or Miike, a modern Japanese film character redirecting the events of a classic Japanese movie. He's as compelling for us to watch as he is to Takashi, who holds all the cards but handles the situation delicately to both preserve his own integrity and protect Noriaki's feelings. Just like someone in love.

I've had a hard time writing about this film because I'm hardly an authority on Kiarostami's filmography, and this is a director surrounded by critical appraisal (there's even a wikipedia page for "Cinematic Style of Abbas Kiarostami.") I honestly haven't been blown away by him yet, although I enjoyed this film more than any of the previous ones I've seen, possibly because of the uninterrupted narrative although maybe also, like Akiko and Kiarostami, I enjoyed just being driven around. I can't remember ever seeing a film that's so undemanding and yet weirdly elusive at the same time. With only three lead characters (at a stretch, you could say there are a total of five characters who even matter at all, the additional two being the self-appointed "keepers" of Akiko - her pimp - and Takashi - his nosy neighbor, respectively) it's impossible to not stay focused on them, even though their actions and motivations themselves are never fully revealed. I wouldn't know what would have made a satisfying ending, so the abrupt cut-to-black, though undeniably jarring, wasn't a dealbreaker for me as it will be for others. I think it's at least somewhat justified: because Noriaki is by far the most interesting character, it makes sense to cut at his highest emotional point, with the highest level of advantage he'll ever have over Takashi and Akiko, who've literally and figuratively taken him for a ride. The revelation of Akiko's secret and her true relationship to Takashi has literally forced him off the ride, so to speak - his arrival at Takashi's apartment marks the only time in the movie a character has appeared at a new space without bringing the film along with him, and the excitement and sense of danger is heightened because of it. Up to that point, the most intense thing to have happened is Takashi nodding off at a red light, although to be fair that moment leading up to the car behind him honking is somehow filmed to be incredibly suspenseful.***** While I completely understand why people would feel indignant over the whiplash effect of the sudden ending, its rejection of resolution in favor of a sudden and unexpected confrontation has the appropriate impact of a car accident (complete with broken glass.) I approve, and I hope Kiarostami comes to America next and films a movie in Lancaster County, with lots of scenes of Amish folk riding around in buggies.

NEXT: Spring Breakers

 

* When was the last time anyone gave you a shout-out, Fran Rubel Kuzui? You're fucking welcome.

** Shohei Imamura and Kiarostami shared the Golden Palm in 1997.

*** That one got a lot of attention on the festival circuit, but didn't end up doing shit - at least not in this country.

**** Speaking of which, did you know Tadanobu Asano was in Battleship? Note to all future Asanos, Watanabes and Sanadas: please don't let Hollywood kill your careers. Somehow Kji Yakusho has eluded their fate, even after appearing in Babel. (I guess Watanabe did Letters from Iwo Jima. Ryo Kase was in that, too. Also his first job was as Asano's P.A.)

***** I like this moment so much I refer to it as "Tokyo Drifting...Off to Sleep."

 

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