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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Like Someone in Love explores the relationship between affection and identity
Student, girlfriend, call girl
The director's craftsmanship shows, even in the film's quietest scenes.
The director's craftsmanship shows, even in the film's quietest scenes.

For viewers, disorientation sets in early. The austere drama Like Someone in Love begins in a crowded Tokyo restaurant. We hear a voice. Who is speaking? The woman at the table over there, with her hand in front of her mouth? No.

Eventually we learn that the voice belongs to Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a young university student. On the phone, she lies to her hothead boyfriend (Ryo Kase) about where she is.

She is joined at her table by an older man. A few more disorienting moments pass before we realize he is her pimp. He has a job for her.

Over the course of a night and a day, Like Someone in Love follows Akiko and her new client, a widowed, grandfatherly academic named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). The film, which I admire more than I love, has a plot that is simple, even elemental. After Akiko and Takashi's night together, he takes her to class. They encounter the boyfriend. Chaos sets in.

Between story developments, such as they are, we get a lot of texture. In one long sequence, Akiko rides in a taxi and checks her voicemail. In another, Takashi and Akiko drive around as buildings and sky attractively reflect off the windshield of his Volvo. There are silences.

This is a familiar mode for Iranian writer and director Abbas Kiarostami. His Palme d'Or-winning 1997 film Taste of Cherry enraptured some critics with its silences, and riled others. The New Yorker compared Like Someone in Love to a fable, and I can see that. The film has a mythical quality that stems from its simplicity and ambiguity. It's to Kiarostami's credit that he invokes powerful themes - the city and the country, the elderly and the young - without overstating them.

But the thing about fables is that they're succinct. I'm not sure there is enough material here to warrant a nearly two-hour running time. How much you enjoy Like Someone in Love may depend on how much you enjoy watching people drive around.

Still, I'm pleased with the craftsmanship, the well-observed moments. I'm especially taken by the scene of Akiko and Takashi's first encounter, which unfolds awkwardly, bleakly. In his tidy, book-lined apartment, he has set a table for two, as if Akiko is joining him for a romantic evening. She rips off her clothes and invites him into bed, then dozes off. In the moments that follow, Okuno's acting is a model of understatement.

I also applaud a particular motif, a series of ancillary characters - an elderly neighbor, a former student - who show up and make brief, oracular statements. As with oracles everywhere, their utterances are open to interpretation.

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