It may be hard out there for a pimp, but it's definitely harder for a prostitute. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami makes that awfully clear in his plodding, bittersweet tale of a Tokyo college student-turned-call girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi). Akiko is a cloyingly pretty young thing with the permanent expression of a frightened baby animal. When she's not being ordered around by her oddly genteel pimp, she weathers endless abuse from her control-freak fiance, who is beginning to catch on to her secret life as a hooker.
We meet Akiko at a slick bar, where her pimp is coercing her into making a house call instead of allowing her to visit her grandmother. Akiko sulks in the back of a cab—the first of many scenes taking place in an automobile, a Kiarostami trademark—all the way to her destination, which turns out to be the home of a downright adorable elderly man named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). He's a retired professor with thin white hair, a lumpy cardigan and thick glasses. In other words, he's the sort of old person who looks huggable, but he's definitely not someone whose billowing khaki pants you'd want to unzip.
As Takashi gingerly steps out of his orthopedic loafers and into his slippers, it appears Like Someone in Love could go one of two ways: It'll either wander off into freaky, avant-garde indie porn territory, with a hearty helping of wrinkled nudity; or it'll bloom into the touching tale of a kindly codger coming to the rescue of a frightened and confused prostitute. Luckily for Akiko, it's closer to the latter. After a night mercifully devoid of geriatric sex acts, and instead filled with polite conversation and homemade soup, it becomes clear that Takashi is simply a lonely old dude who wants to feel needed. And boy, did he find a woman in need.
The action unfolds extremely slowly, with long stretches shot in real time as Takashi becomes entwined in Akiko's life over the course of a few days. The effect is sometimes absorbing but too often flat-out boring—unless you're in the mood to count every one of Takashi's snow-white mustache hairs as he gazes out the car window. Though Kiarostami's cinematic vision is masterful, and his characters undeniably compelling, his fixation on detail is ultimately a detriment to what is almost a wonderful film.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Like Someone in Love opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.