Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love opens far from Tehran, in a noisy Tokyo bar.
"When did I lie to you?" asks an unseen woman, ensnarled in a difficult cellphone exchange. The viewer is already trying to decipher this person, without even glimpsing her.
Eventually, the camera locates Akiko (Rin Takanashi), and a series of conversations reveals something of her life. She's a college student, originally from a rural village, who moonlights as a call girl. The person on the phone — to whom she is indeed lying — is her boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), who doesn't know she's a hooker.
Akiko is exhausted on this particular evening, but her pimp insists she keep an appointment with a client. Reluctantly, the young woman gets in a cab, falling asleep as it crosses from Tokyo's neon-tinted sprawl into neighboring Yokohama. The views through the windshield, along with later shots involving windows and mirrors, reveal Akiko as both exposed and inaccessible.
The girlish hooker's john is Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), a courtly retired professor about 60 years her senior. He has in mind a proper date — and even plans to serve his drowsy guest a soup associated with her hometown.
Fascination with regional cuisines is an authentic Japanese quirk, which shows that Kiarostami has picked up a few things during three decades of promotional trips to Tokyo. But the worldly filmmaker is still Iranian, so he skips the scene where Akiko and Takashi have — or don't have — sex.
The next morning, the professor drives Akiko to the university, where boyfriend Noriaki is waiting for her. When she goes to take an exam, Noriaki introduces himself to the man he assumes is Akiko's grandfather. Takashi doesn't exactly deny it, perhaps to sidestep the actual nature of the relationship. But maybe he's also beginning to think of Akiko as a surrogate for the real granddaughter from whom he's apparently estranged.
As in most of Kiarostami's films, "apparently" is a key word. So, of course, is "like." The Japanese title of Like Someone in Love is simply a transliteration of the English phrase, taken from the 1940s standard sung on the soundtrack by Ella Fitzgerald.
And indeed, all three of the main characters behave like someone in love. Noriaki is obsessively smitten, intensely jealous and potentially violent; Takashi's affection is more avuncular, but seemingly interwoven with erotic nostalgia for his lost wife. And Akiko goes to bed with men like a woman in love — but not for love.
In Iran, where Kiarostami hasn't directed a fiction film in a decade, making truthful films about women is problematic. Among his ploys was 2002's Ten, whose female protagonist is seen only in her car, a location that straddles public and private.
The director establishes a similar scheme here. Although several scenes occur elsewhere, much of the movie is set inside the cab or in Takashi's Volvo. Kiarostami even allows himself a few jokes on this theme: Noriaki turns out to be an auto mechanic, and Takashi's role shifts from client to grandpa to chauffeur.
At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Like Someone in Love was criticized for being open-ended. That's an odd complaint, since the inconclusive conclusion is one of Kiarostami's trademarks. Perhaps the movie's plot, which moves toward a heated confrontation of a sort unusual in the director's work, led some viewers to expect a more conventional outcome.
What is frustratingly conventional is the character of Akiko, the blankly child-like beauty, as well as the focus on Japan's conspicuous sex trade. Like Someone in Love boasts gently insightful moments, but sometimes Kiarostami just seems like a wide-eyed tourist in unbuttoned Tokyo, the anti-Tehran.