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Japanese film calls 'Love' into question

France Cannes Like Someone in Love Red Carpet
From left, actress Rin Takanashi, director Abbas Kiarostami, actors Tadashi Okuno and Ryo Kase arrive for the screening of Like Someone in Love at the 65th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Monday, May 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

"Like Someone in Love" starts out rather obliquely. The confusion is eventually cleared up -- in a rather surprising way -- but the sense of ambiguity and unsettlement remains to the film's very end. It's what makes this elegant picture both confounding and irresistible at once.

I hate to be the one to clear up the confusion, rather than the filmmaker, but it would be impossible to say what the film is about otherwise. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is at a restaurant, talking on her cellphone, while her companion is away from the table. We can't see her, but we can hear her. And she's clearly talking to a jealous-to-the-point-of-obsessive boyfriend. She puts a girlfriend on the line -- sitting at a nearby table -- to prove she's not out with another man. She is, though, but it's not what you might think: The man is, to put it bluntly, her pimp.

Akiko looks too fragile to be a call girl, but that's how the Tokyo student gets by. She's exhausted, having stayed up late to study for an exam, and wants the night off. Her grandmother has arrived in town, just for the day, just to see Akiko. But her boss insists she take the assignment, and Akiko soon complies.

On screen
'Like Someone in Love'
» Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Rin Takanashi, Tadashi Okuno, Ryo Kase
» Director: Abbas Kiarostami
» Rating: Not rated
» Running time: 109 minutes

It's heartbreaking to watch as she listens to the voicemails her grandmother has left -- she sees Akiko's face on a poster with a phone number, and that of a friend from Akiko's town, the girl in the restaurant, on another -- and asks the taxi driver to go past the train station a few times, so she can catch a glimpse of the old woman waiting for her.

Duty calls, but the man at the end of the cab ride isn't your typical john. Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) is a widowed professor. The bookish man isn't interested in taking the beautiful Akiko straight to bed. He wants to talk to her first. This might be unexpected to Akiko, but the next day's events will be even more surprising. The boyfriend (Ryo Kase) sees Takashi drop the girl off at class the next day and assumes he's her grandfather. He asks the man permission to marry Akiko -- and then the story really gets strange.

Akiko transforms herself from a tired, resentful employee to an energetic girl-on-call as soon as she steps into Takashi's cluttered apartment. The actress who plays her makes an even more impressive change, as she slowly lets the viewer inside her troubled head. Call girls on film are rarely your typical call girls, but Akiko seems particularly special. Which is why it almost hurts the viewer as much as the character when Akiko listens to her grandmother tell her on one of those voicemails that her friend's mother is worried about her, but she has no concerns about her own grandmother. "I know that my Aki is intelligent and reasonable."

Nobody ever is in games of love -- or lust, or obsession, or longing, or whatever names you want to give to the complicated emotions of this film. This Japanese-set film was made by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who went to Italy for the equally beautiful and fascinating 2010 film "Certified Copy." Here is a man who knows human folly knows no borders.