Ambiguity haters, take note: you will not find the easy answers you're looking for with Abbas Kiarostami, the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker whose work has almost always been oblique enough to skirt around his country's notoriously oppressive censors (the same ones who put Jafar Panahi under house arrest for his own more direct protest cinema). Resolution is not always super important to this guy. Deal with that or avoid him.
Kiarostami drops clues and refuses to pick them back up, he follows his characters down paths that -- even though he's the screenwriter -- they've seemingly chosen for themselves without his help. Confusion is part of his storytelling process and sometimes the most dramatic moments (like the final sequence here) are designed to leave you murmuring, possibly shouting, "Wait! What just happened?"
As if to announce his intentions, the movie begins with a woman, off camera, talking to someone we can't hear. After several minutes, the camera holding still, we learn that her name is Akiko (Rin Takanashi), she's a university student with a jealous boyfriend (Ryo Kase, Letters from Iwo Jima), she's also a part-time prostitute and her pimp, in addition to gently doling out fatherly relationship advice, has booked her for an appointment with an elderly professor and book translator (Tadashi Okuno). Akiko arrives at his apartment and instead of sex he offers her soup and a place to sleep. The next day, boyfriend trouble arrives and deceptions pile up as the professor poses as Akiko's grandfather.
The "why" element of these characters' decisions is also sort of the point of this quietly slippery identity drama. People lie and they do it for a million reasons, for protection or love or to get something they need. They pretend to be what they aren't for the same reasons. And just like in Kiarostami's most recent film, Certified Copy (which gets a subtle nod during a scene involving a discussion of the origins of a print of a famous painting in the professor's apartment), the audience isn't always sure who these people might really be to one another. Could the professor truly be Akiko's grandfather? Is that why he tells her that "being a parent is the work of a lifetime?" Is that why he pockets her lost bracelet? Or is he just a lonely old man? Will Akiko's secret after-school job be revealed when all those call-girl flyers with her face on them start turning up? And will she finally get away from her anger issues-bound boyfriend before he makes good on his threat to marry her "so she won't have any choice" but to obey him?
To know the answer before Kiarostami delivers his final narrative punch, look to his camera. Everyone in this tightly controlled visual space, from start to finish, speaks off-screen, on voice mail, through closed doors or tiny open kitchen windows. And just like another earlier Kiarostami film, Ten, which took place entirely inside a car, autos are this story's microverse. We are outside the windshield looking in, dialogue takes place in reflection, through half-rolled-up windows, delivered into rear-view mirrors toward the back seat, always at a distance.
And again, why? Well, all the better to remind you that separation and isolation are the best these folks can hope for, a theme literally spoken by a minor female character -- the neighbor obsessed with where the professor parks his car that blocks her view -- "Looking out this window is all I have left."