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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 10.24.12] France drama

Abbas Kiarostami once stated that "when you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. If I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree." Sadly, contemporary Iran leaves the pre-eminent filmmaker of the New Iranian Cinema no real option but to uproot. Kiarostami is now planning his third film abroad in an as-of-yet undisclosed location, an active protest to the production obstacles, de facto censorship, and routine banning his films have suffered under the regime of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Some would say that he has gotten off lightly, compared to Jafar Panahi and other Iranian artists who have faced political persecution for their art. The good news is that the 72-year old writer/director's identity remains intact no matter what culture it is transplanted into, and his career continues to produce very sweet fruit indeed. Perhaps stimulated by adversity, or perhaps enabled by creative freedom to explore subjects and methods previously unavailable to him, Kiarostami has produced two of his most accomplished and accessible works in the Tuscany-set Certified Copy and his new film, the Tokyo-set Like Someone In Love.

Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a quiet sociology student who moonlights as a coquettish call girl. Noriaki (Ryo Kase) is her possessive (and oblivious) would-be fiance, a brash auto-mechanic. Takeshi (Tadashi Okuno) is her doting client, an elderly sociology professor/academic translator. This is our unlikely love triangle, and their character descriptions imply the story being told. Akiko arrives somewhat reluctantly at Takeshi's apartment one night, after a passive-aggressive argument with her pimp (Denden) and a soul-crushing series of voicemails from her grandmother. Takeshi is clearly smitten, but does not seem interested in sex. Instead he wants her to have dinner with him, revealing a shrimp broth dish from her hometown that he has spent all day preparing. Akiko rejects the old man's pleasantries and removes her clothes on the way to his bedroom. After one of those tasteful old-fashioned fade-to-blacks that could mean just about anything (I imagine the platonic alternative), it's the next day and he's driving her to campus. This is where Noriaki becomes involved, meeting Takeshi by chance and assuming he is Akiko's grandfather. Takeshi plays along (or does he?), and complications ensue.

Typical of Kiarostami, there's a lot more to the simple set-up than meets the eye. The conspiracy theorist in me began to suspect that Takeshi was Akiko's actual grandfather attempting a reunification, but the film doesn't stoop to a notion so melodramatically literal. Similar to the question of "are they strangers or lovers?" in Certified Copy, the answer doesn't matter as much as the question. Over the course of the story, Takeshi and Akiko go through a series of bonding experiences that lead to a genuine relationship. Akiko is burdened by the love of others, despairing at the expectations she is unable to fulfill. She needs the love in her life to be unconditional, and Takeshi is able to provide that. The exact nature of the relationship remains somewhat ambiguous, as so much about these characters and their extra-narrative lives is left unspoken, and much of what they say is intended to deceive. But it's undeniable that Takeshi and Akiko have carved out something real together by the end of the story, even if it is vulnerable and fragile.

Although Like Someone in Love is set in Tokyo, it is still inexorably Kiarostami. But like a master chef cooking while abroad, it is interesting to watch the director play with locally sourced ingredients. Perhaps the most striking novelty is the sympathetic portrayal of a prostitute. Here is something you never would have seen in one of Kiarostami's Iranian pictures. After all, the Iranian government flew into an uproar when the director gave Cannes presenter Catherine Deneuve a peck on the cheek for his Taste of Cherry Palme d'Or. This is not to suggest anything lewd, mind you. The closest this film gets to sex or nudity is a blurry reflection of Akiko in bed. It should come as no surprise that the director of Shirin has a deep and abiding respect for women, even those who choose to work in the sex industry.

I sometimes compare Kiarostami's films to Zen koans. They are elegantly simple, but give way to deep philosophical meaning the more time you spend thinking about them. For this reason, the Tokyo setting feels totally appropriate. Kiarostami has come up with a story that feels both faithful to the themes of his oeuvre and specific to the setting and culture of Japan. Many of the director's stylistic tics feel new and fresh in this location. As usual, a number of driving scenes are present (see Life and Nothing More…, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Ten, many more) and functioning like subtle hypnosis. The rolling reflections on the windshield, the ticking metronome of a turn signal, and we are under some sort of spell. There are many moments in which Kiarostami conceals the main visual information in favor of a reaction shot. Many long, unbroken takes where we are forced to contemplate a full sequence of events, rather than a version chopped up and cut down for maximum narrative effect. Many instances in which the bustling Tokyo sound design overpowers our quiet leads. And yet nothing I'm describing is "slow" or "uneventful". Everything is subtly stylized and choreographed and heightened in a way that I do not fully understand. There is a subtle magic to the methods of this filmmaker, a mesmerizing effect that draws you into his world carefully and precisely. Everything means something, if you're paying attention.

It is uncertain what the future holds for Abbas Kiarostami. Hopefully he will be able to return to Iran and make more films there. I imagine that he still wants to. But if the political situation remains hostile to art, we can at least take solace in the fact that he remains a master when displaced from his native soil.

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