The second stop on the ongoing Abbas Kiarostami world tour, Like Someone In Love, plays out as a city-mouse rejoinder to the rustic, open-air daydream of Certified Copy, a snarl of thorny free jazz to that film's graceful aria. Playing out over two days in Tokyo, it transfers the central enigma from the relationship between two characters to the narrative structure itself, transforming a seemingly simple story into something completely confounding. This culminates with a strangely concussive final shot, a weird cymbal crash of a moment that's either the last in a series of visual gags or the final clue to the director's mystifying concept.
For its first 30 minutes, Like Someone In Love seems to be pretty tightly focused, opening with one of Kiarostami's trademarks: a static shot of a person's face as action plays out in front of them, in this case a young girl sitting at the window table of a cramped, noisy bar. Her name is Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a college-attending prostitute who's being hounded on both sides, by a jealous but unsuspecting boyfriend, who makes her describe the bar's bathroom tiles via phone so he can later confirm she's where she says she is, and an obstinate pimp. Shuttled into a cab headed for a john's home in the suburbs, Akiko gets pushed into a more expansive variation on this commerce-versus-fidelity struggle, listening to sad voicemails from an ignored grandmother while staring down the clarion call of Western encroachment, signs for Subway, Top Man, and Starbucks sliding by the cab's window.
This conflict between a vanishing traditional past and a colder, business-minded future seems to put us squarely in Ozu territory; later on, an elderly neighbor even complains that no one visits their elders any longer. But the replica-obsessed Kiarostami, perhaps playing up his indebtedness to Ozu with Like Someone In Love's Tokyo setting, keeps teasing this thread while nudging the plot into more diffusely ambiguous territory. After a long cab ride, Akiko arrives at the neatly provisioned apartment of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a retired, widowed professor who pretends to have prepared a special shrimp soup from the girl's region; we know that he's simply picked up takeout from the restaurant downstairs.
Frustrated by the man's apparent disinterest in sex, Akiko falls asleep on his bed. Settling into a more filially appropriate relationship, the two spend the next day running errands, before an eventual run-in with the jealous boyfriend (Ryo Kase), who assumes that Takashi is Akiko's grandfather. The resulting three-hander ambles along in a strangely scattered, lackadaisical fashion. Coming on the heels of the director's latest masterpiece, this strange film feels like a less successful adventure in international filmmaking: Its muddled murkiness and lack of obvious intent might speak more to the difficulty of working in a foreign country, and producing a product in a foreign language, than any lack of ideas or shortage of vision.
Whatever the case, things kick back into high gear with the final scene, a bizarre apartment siege that's accompanied by an escalating crescendo of background noise. This conclusion caps off an uneven effort studded with a few truly transcendent moments. The shot of a cab circling an old statue, where Akiko's visiting grandmother sits waiting for her to appear, is perfect in its sadness, the film's answer to the crying-bride/golden-tree composition from Certified Copy.
Great moments like this are matched by the tantalizing sense that there's something significant going on too far beneath the surface, from the visual motif of trees (or in one case a disembodied log) getting in the way of the shot, to how these blockages relate to the steady accretion of advancing objects, from a rolling car in an auto shop to a lengthy argument over a few inches of parking space. Like Someone In Love may not be entirely successful in linking its thematic intransigence to its noticeable undercurrent of symbols and ideas, but Kiarostami's general dexterity sustains it through frequent lulls: Whatever's going on here, there certainly aren't many other movies like it.