The current population of Tokyo (as of Jan. 1) is 13,222,760. We’ve all known our whole lives, of course, that it is teeming and one of the world’s great cities.

You’ve never quite been aware of it before in a film the way you are in Abbas Kiarostami’s small but quietly extraordinary “Like Someone in Love.” (Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s song figures prominently in the soundtrack – further proof, if anyone requires it, of the international universality of American popular music.)

To be more specific, you’ve never quite heard Tokyo before the way you do in “Like Someone in Love.”

Iranian Kiarostami is one of the world’s greatest film directors. He often confines himself to dialogue in small spaces. In almost every scene, the city of Tokyo is a large, enveloping and ambiguous outside presence. Menacing? Reassuring? You never really know. Its traffic, though, is the background soundscape of almost everything we see.

Simply as a matter of cinematic technique, I found that stunning and brilliant in context – that Tokyo’s sonic omnipresence outside the frame of the movie gives it a completely unpredictable extra character. It gives Kiarostami’s film a context so unlike the films of others.

That, though, is proof of the magic of the director. Because he is Iranian, his subject matter in Iranian films can’t be nearly as free as those he might make elsewhere. Statelessness is far from uncommon among the world’s greatest filmmakers. It’s that kind of art. Nothing but plentiful are those of actual genius who simply can’t, for one reason or another, do their best work in their native lands.

If you think about its subject matter at all, “Like Someone in Love” seems virtually impossible in current Iran.

It’s about a lovely young woman (Rin Takanashi) whom we slowly – and cleverly – discover as the film goes on is both a student and a part-time call girl. When she is put in contact with an elderly, widowed professor (Tadashi Okuno), their relationship is anything but a clash of utilitarian commercial lust. What develops between them is, in fact, a relationship of some tenderness and generosity, almost all of it because of the professor’s late life understanding of how much more transpires between men and women than hormonal crashings.

She slowly brings him into her life – her grandmother, who leaves messages on her phone, and her boyfriend (Ryo Kase) whose instability right from the outset is both obvious and utterly inscrutable.

What then transpires is complication leading to one of the most genuinely shocking endings I’ve seen to a film in at least five years.

It’s a peculiar thing about shock and surprise. You can so often have the former without ever really having the latter. What happens at the end of “Like Someone in Love” couldn’t possibly be constructed with more pristine narrative logic. It’s just that what happens shocks and sears you in your seat, even though it’s no surprise.

Kiarostami – whose previous film was “Certified Copy” with Juliette Binoche – is a director of exquisite cinematic gifts in an older way audiences seldom seek anymore in ordinary movies. He is a great film artist the way middle Ingmar Bergman was while almost never leaving home or Roman Polanski still usually is in his own version of statelessness.

What we usually see at the movies, at best, are triumphs of design and technique. What you see in this quiet movie with a wallop is a triumph of life vision from an artist who had to travel a world away from home to achieve it.


Like Someone In Love

Three and a half stars

Starring: Tadashi Okuno, Rin Takanashi, Ryo Kase

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Running time: 109 minutes

Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for sexual frankness. In Japanese with subtitles.

The Lowdown: A student who moonlights as a call girl takes up with an elderly professor and causes havoc neither could anticipate.