Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Akira Ikeda, 2017)

Ambiguous places posterThe world is quite a strange place at the best of times, but for a small collection of people living in between some Ambiguous Places (うろんなところ, Uronna Tokoro) everything seems pretty much normal. Akira Ikeda whose Anatomy of a Paperclip won a Tiger Award at International Film Festival Rotterdam, returns with another surreal tale inspired by the land of dreams. 

Konoko (lit. “this girl”) washes up on a beach trapped in a net and tries to sing but the other people on the beach tell her to stop, because she’s rubbish. Konoko’s other problem is that she’s got a bug stuck in her hair and will need to find a barber to take it out. Travelling with a man whom a strange lady looking for “nuts” on a beach assures her is her dad, Konoko wanders off to look for a hairdresser only to sell her “dad” to a couple of near silent dango makers and then discover that the only barber’s in town is actually a soba shop (which serves udon) and she needs to go the pharmacy only the pharmacist is out at the moment because he had to get some gloves made in celebration of his wife’s pregnancy…

Ambiguous Places is actually a cyclical collection of three stories running more or less concurrently in which the same collection of strange people reappear in different stages of their own adventures. Konoko’s “Meeting Nyoraga” segues into the pharmacist’s odyssey of glove making and forced marriage “Celebrate with Gloves”, and that in turn leads into “Get My Hair Washed” which pops out of the pharmacist’s dream about a girl with foamy hair and features a quest to rid one’s home of scary blue ghosts only to end with everyone sitting down and having dinner together instead.

To begin with everything seems very strange but like the best of dreams it eventually starts to make sense and though there is more than a little violence and hostility, broadly everyone seems to accept things just the way they are. Still, from our point of view this is all terribly surreal. At one point the pharmacist, who has just spent ages having gloves knitted around his hands in a bizarre ritual encounters the man who will later own the dango shop just as he’s carting his wife around covered by a sheet and sitting in a wheel barrow filled with vegetables. The man explains that this is his people’s way of celebrating. The pharmacist looks him dead in the eye and remarks “strange custom”. Well, quite. Mozart’s The Magic Flute also plays a large role in the proceedings in somewhat mangled German with bits of Japanese creeping in until a young lady is forced to have a go after criticising Konoko’s singing and finds she is able to sing the Queen of the Night aria complete with coloratura almost faultlessly.

The atmosphere is indeed dreamlike as the various tales weave in and out of each other with a kind of surreal logic that has its own internal consistency even if it’s quite hard to pin down. Absurd in the extreme, Ikeda opts for deadpan delivery that adds to the bizarre humour and ethereal quality of the strange “ambiguous places” which seem to exist in this odd little seaside town. Yet also like dreams the deeper meaning (if there is any) is hard to discern. Nevertheless, even if it is all random and essentially meaningless, Ambiguous Places is unexpectedly warm and filled with enough zany humour to keep things ticking along even when wondering if one needs to be afraid of the postman or if Nyoraga is really as dangerous as they say…


Streamed via Festival Scope as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Night I Swam (La Nuit où j’ai nagé / 泳ぎすぎた夜, Damien Manivel & Kohei Igarashi, 2017)

The Night I SwamCinema, at its most innocent, is a place where children can have fantastic adventures while the adults watching them from the other side of the screen worry though somehow or other it always manages to turn out OK. From the anxious whimsy of the The Little Fugitive, to the melancholy dreaminess of Palle all Alone in the World, and on to the anarchy of Home Alone, children in movies are much more resourceful than we give then credit for. The Night I Swam (La Nuit où j’ai nagé / 泳ぎすぎた夜, Oyogisugita Yoru), a Japanese/French co-production co-directed by A Young Poet’s Damien Manivel and Hold Your Breath Like a Lover’s Kohei Igarashi, is testament to this as its central little hero sets off on a perilous journey to show his dad, who has to leave very early for work at the fish market in town, a drawing he made of a fish.

One fateful morning, while it’s still dark outside, a little boy wakes up and hears his father smoking a cigarette in the kitchen before going to work. The boy can’t get back to sleep. He tries to wake his mum but she’s deep asleep so he plays with the family dog, has a game with his toy animals, watches some TV and then draws a picture of a fish before trying to get a little more shuteye before he has to get up for school. The consequence of this is he’s very sleepy when it comes to getting ready in the morning as his mum helps him into the ski pants, jacket, and pretty blue hat that will keep him warm in the thick snow which is currently piled higher than his head on the way out of their home.

The little boy puts the drawing in his backpack and then sets off, but when he reaches the school gates he makes a surprising decision. He turns around, climbs over a fence and escapes! Playing in the snow for a while it seems as if the boy just didn’t fancy a day cooped up indoors but he has a plan and it requires getting on a train into the city…

The little boy’s journey is occasionally perilous. It’s certainly freezing cold out there, surrounded by snow and and ice, and the little tyke is so tired that at one point he just collapses and falls asleep in the snow. Somehow or other he seems to rally himself and continue on his journey even if he sheds some of his tools as he goes including a precious glove which he takes off to peel the oranges he’s brought along for sustenance. Once in the city he makes a dangerous dash across an icy road, wanders around a department store, and spends a while sitting in a food court, observing the busy lives around him like a visitor from a dream. When he gets to the fish market, it’s already closed, the place is eerily empty and deserted, waiting for the next day’s activity to begin.

Disheartened and completely exhausted, the boy starts testing doors on the cars in the carpark before crawling into a open van to keep warm and falls asleep. Luckily, the boy’s story has a happy ending as he meets some nice people who help him get back to his family safe and sound where he finally gets some proper sleep after his long adventure. The film’s most touching moments occur at the end as the boy’s dad hangs up his wet clothes to dry before looking at the drawing which the boy’s sister has pinned on the fridge before falling asleep next to his son, sharing this small amount of time they have together, while the boy’s mother watches TV downstairs with her little girl.

Shot in academy ratio and entirely dialogue free, The Night I Swam has an innocent, dreamlike quality as the little boy wanders through the snow, wide eyed and curious but set on reaching his destination even though he is clearly very tired, not to mention cold. Broken into three chapters with picture book font titles, The Night I Swam is a beautifully elliptical tale filled with whimsy and melancholy as the boy and his father are kept apart by practical concerns but united, perhaps, in dreams.


Currently available to view via Festival Scope (€4) until 19th September.

Original trailer