Kiarostami's four-fifths of a great movie, or, The United States of Huck Part II: Japan
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of Like Someone in Love.]
Something about Like Someone in Love had me hooked until the end. It might just be the allure of Japan as a culture and a landscape, and how it becomes an open canvas to explore isolation and otherness. There's the wonderful Oscar Wilde line that's stuck with me for years: "The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people."
And on the note of invention and no-such people, Like Someone in Love is about lies and fake identities, and how these can unravel in unexpected ways. It's like Abbas Kiarostami has made a well-acted slow-burn screwball comedy about an old man, an escort, and the escort's angry boyfriend.
But the ending of Like Someone in Love is abrupt. If the credits didn't roll at that moment, you'd swear there was a missing reel. It's a botched landing, but kind of brilliant because I think I understand why Kiarostami ended the film the way he did. But the question: is it possible to still really like something when it ends so imperfectly?
Like Someone in Love
I actually had a problem with the way another Kiarostami film ended. It was 1997's Taste of Cherry (Ta'm e guilass), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes that year. Rather than stopping short of a conclusion, Taste of Cherry has an ending that went a step too far into pretension. The intellectual conceit made sense even though the execution left me frustrated. As with Kiarostami's latest, I wondered how much I could enjoy Taste of Cherry despite the ending. Watching it again a few years ago, I turned Taste of Cherry off about two minutes early and thought it was a great existential slow burn with an ambiguous ending.
Like Someone in Love finds Kiarostami working outside of Iran again, this time in Japan. (His previous and most accessible film, Certified Copy, was shot in Italy, a country he plans to return to for his next film.) The story centers on Akiko (Rin Takanashi), an escort with an overbearing and abusive boyfriend named Noriaki (Ryo Kase). Noriaki has no idea what Akiko really does for a living. Akiko gets set up on a date with a client named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a lonely old professor and writer. In less than 24 hours, all of their lives get upended when a series of lies snowballs uncontrollably. This will not end well for anyone.
What's most engrossing about Like Someone in Love are the performances from the three principles. Takanashi looks a little helpless and a little doomed from the start. There's a remarkable cab ride near the beginning of the film in which Akiko simply listens to voice mails from her grandmother who's stopped to visit. The resolution to that scene is heartbreaking, and it's all told in Takanashi's face and that odd way that neon reflected in windows can make the world seem happier everywhere else but where you are. Kase's simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic, and he becomes downright menacing at certain points in the story. You begin to understand why Akiko stays with him -- she's trapped.
Kiarostami's major find is the 84-year-old Okuno. The actor was best known for his stage and television appearances in Japan but never held a lead role in a film. For the last 50 years, he was mostly a background extra in movies. As Takashi, he plays the moral center, and yet he sets the drama in motion with a major lie. All the while, he seems to regard Akiko both paternally and as a possible lover. The latter idea is sad and pathetic, and there's some self-awareness to Okuno's performance that makes the character seem noble in a misguided way. Yet Takashi shows genuine affection toward Akiko. This may be a kindness that she hasn't experienced for some time, which turns an impossible hope at love into a merely improbable one.
Takashi is quick to dispense advice about life to Noriaki and Akiko, always citing the difference between experience and inexperience. But his own fumblings through human emotion suggest that he's just as inexperienced as everyone else. It could be he's really in love (or in some kind of love) with Akiko and the feeling has hobbled his wisdom. Love turns everyone into fools and children, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. In this case, mostly the bad way. It's in the song that the film takes its name from (the Ella Fitzgerald rendition figures prominently): "Sometimes the things I do astound me / Mostly whenever you're around me / Lately I seem to walk as though I have wings / Run into things like someone in love."
That brings me back to the end of the film, the moment when the story, so carefully modulated and deliberately paced, threatens to become something darker. If love makes people fools and children, the loss of love turns people into lunatics and animals. I think part of this might've been Kiarostami's own design. He knew nothing could turn out well for anyone, and that the story would have to turn tragic if it goes beyond a certain point. If he tried to resolve everything in a comic way, it would feel forced and artificial. A pretty bow on the end would undermine the rest of the film's construction. Kiarostami ends the picture at a point when tension mounts and the comedy suddenly disappears. It's a surprise; it's cinematic coitus interruptus. I think a lot of people will be frustrated by the clipped ending in the same way that I was frustrated by the tacked-on ending of Taste of Cherry.
It got me thinking about a George Saunders essay titled "The United States of Huck: Introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." (In some sense Takashi is offering Akiko a form of escape, so maybe this association isn't too out there.) The general consensus is that Huck Finn has a horrible ending, that those last 10 chapters are an atrocity in an otherwise excellent book. They even undermine Mark Twain's own rules of fiction in his essay "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." Saunders similarly piles on the ending, but he thinks Twain did it because he wanted to craft a comic novel. If he continued the story in the cruel and stupid world of the book, things just wouldn't turn out right for Huck and Jim. And so, he self-destructs the book with farce.
As for Like Someone in Love, I think Kiarostami might have had a similar feeling about his own film. It's comic even though there's an impending tragedy, and it's about people in love who come to a major turning point in their lives. All the experience and knowledge amounts to nothing when it comes to the infinite complexities of human emotion. If the movie continued from where it ends, there'd be only two possibilities -- heartbreak or death. So instead of letting it happen, Kiarostami self-destructs. You can probably figure out how this would have turned out if it kept going, there are enough hints throughout the film.
So evaluating Like Someone in Love is difficult and a bit like evaluating a book that ends badly. There's so much charm and tenderness in the performances, and a lot of playful reference to the themes and compositions in a Yasujiro Ozu film. I still enjoyed Like Someone in Love even at the end, though maybe not despite the ending. Unlike Taste of Cherry, I don't have the option of stopping the film short. Kiarostami has done that for me, so I just have to accept what's there. I don't know if I'd want the film to go any further anyway. Kiarostami and his characters got out while the getting was good. Maybe the movie had turned me into enough of a fool and a child to be perfectly fine with that.