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)

YEAH (Yohei Suzuki, 2018)

Yeah still 2Following a series of high profile shorts in international festivals, Yohei Suzuki’s debut feature Ow became something of a cult hit in its surreal, sci-fi leaning tale of an unemployed young man who becomes transfixed by a mysterious round object that suddenly appears in his room, entering a kind of suspended animation which later claims several of his friends and family. Four years on Suzuki’s back with a second feature, but one which runs a scant 45 minutes. The enthusiastically titled “YEAH” takes a similarly surreal approach in dissecting the effects on ongoing national decline on the nation’s youth through the actions of a strange young woman who floats like a ghost through her rapidly disintegrating world.

There’s something a bit different about Ako. When we meet her, she appears to be in the middle of a difficult breakup with a scarecrow. Holding on to the bottom of a sleeve attached to a jacket which is being worn by a dressmaker’s mannequin, Ako laments that she likes how he doesn’t talk but hates not seeing him. Eventually she switches her attentions to a nearby tree which she praises for its constant services on behalf of “Man-kind”. Looking for her mother and sister, Ako wanders into other people’s apartments and confuses local shop keepers, carrying around a pot of coriander she’s collected for its cuteness and cradling it as if it were a baby. She hallucinates strange visions of a scary man and is taken to a mental hospital by another who seems to be her brother but is released back into his care only to wander off and meet another girl just like her who later confesses that she is, in fact, a bean and though she was at first frightened by her realisation, is OK with it now.

Set in Mito in rural Ibaraki, YEAH takes place entirely within a rundown housing estate. Ako, wandering around in wellies, is a lone figure in this oddly quiet settlement. Local teens hang out in the central courtyard where the grass is dying and the swings and climbing frames long rusty from underuse. A classic danchi with dingy open staircases, no lifts, and long corridors the atmosphere is one of decline and defeat. A symbol of an economic leap forward, farmlands giving way to a displaced urban populace, the estate could not be more out of step with modern times as the young make their way towards cities or back towards the land, forever abandoning this awkward liminal space which seems to have been eclipsed by a change in the economic weather.

Women like Ako are, perhaps, a kind of ghost – floating about unseen and unheeded, left with nothing other to do than go slowly mad in a world which is dying all around them. Rejected by the other young people on the estate who use her as a kind of entertainment, Ako literally slips in and out of the conscious world, disappearing from one place only to appear in another still carrying her beloved plant around with her. Lamenting that her home is gone and everything she loved has been taken away, Ako is left only with her worshipful devotion to “Atchy-ma” who “shines the light” on her, and a fierce love of the industry of plant life which works so tirelessly to maintain the environment human beings are so keen to destroy. 

Suzuki’s approach is surreal and obscure, making frequent use of dissolves and superimpositions to capture the various ways Ako is literally lost to or eliminated by her environment. Ako exclaims that she still doesn’t get “YEAH”, because she is “Japanese after all”, but keeps trying anyway, screaming into a void in search of some kind of light while those around her continue in similarly idle pursuits which, while less unusual, lack her otherwise idealistic sense of purpose.


Available to stream on Festival Scope until 20th February as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Youth, Hanagatami, Land at International Film Festival Rotterdam 2018

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Always a staunch champion of East Asian cinema, the International Film Festival Rotterdam has revealed its full lineup for 2018. You can find full details for the complete program on the official website, but there are plenty of films from China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand to feast on in this year’s selection.

China 

Feng Xiaogang Youth still one

  • Dragonfly Eyes – Chinese artist Xu Bing assembles a modern story from China’s myriad CCTV cameras in which a young woman leaves a Buddhist monastery and meets a young man…
  • Impermanence – A monk with a shady past, a haunted innkeeper, and a lonely retiree are drawn to a remote Buddhist temple where their karmic debts are weighed in the debut from Zeng Zeng.
  • Mrs Fang – Winner of the Golden Leopard in Locarno, Wang Bing’s hardhitting documentary charts the last days of an ordinary woman in rural China.
  • Silent Mists – A small town is plagued by a series of violent rapes but no one seems very interested in catching the culprits in Zhang Miaoyan’s gritty drama.
  • Stammering Ballad – portrait of itinerant folk musician Ga Song.
  • The Widowed Witch – A widow is raped by her brother-in-law and takes to the road with her husband’s deaf brother.
  • Youth – Feng Xiaogang takes a nostalgic look back at turbulent ’70s China through the story of the revolutionary ballet division. Review.

Japan

Sweating the Small Stuff

  • Ambiguous Places – Akira Ikeda’s third feature follows the adventures of a woman who wakes up on a beach and finds an insect stuck to her head…
  • Funeral Parade of Roses – Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde classic in its new 4K restoration.
  • Hanagatami – a project 40 years in the making, Nobuhiko Obayashi tells the story of a generation about to be engulfed by the oncoming storm of war.
  • The Hungry Lion – Takaomi Ogata’s understated drama focusses on a teacher accused of sexual misconduct with a student and the school girl who is rumoured to be in the leaked sex tape.
  • Night is Short, Walk on Girl –  Masaaki Yuasa returns to the surreal world of Tatami Galaxy’s Tomihiko Morimi for another drunken night in Kyoto as a girl chases her future and a boy chases a girl. Review.
  • Outrage Coda – Takeshi Kitano returns for the third in his “Outrage” series of violent yakuza action movies.
  • Radiance – The latest from Naomi Kawase, Radiance stars Masatoshi Nagase as a photographer slowly losing his sight.
  • Sweating the Small Stuff – Ryutaro Ninomiya stars in a semi-autobiographical tale of a small town loner dealing with the long buried trauma of the death of his mother from illness when he was a child. Review.

Indonesia

marlina the murderer in four acts still one

  • Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – A woman takes to the road seeking revenge after her ranch is raided in Mouly Surya’s Eastern western.
  • Satan’s Slaves – Joko Anwar remakes an ’80s Indonesian classic in which a young woman and her siblings are left alone in a creepy old house following the death of their mother and soon begin receiving mysterious visitations…

Korea

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  • The Day After – One of three films Hong Sang-soo released in 2017, The Day After focusses not on an egotistical film director but on an egotistical publisher who takes on new girl Kim Min-hee after having to fire his last assistant because his wife found out about their affair… Review.
  • The Fortress – Lee Byunhun stars in Hwang Donghyuk’s historical epic in which the King has retreated in order to protect himself from the encroaching Qing but is left only with a choice of graceful defeat.
  • Hit the Night – Jeong Gayoung’s Bitch on the Beach followup promises more Hong Sang-soo inspired sorrow and soju but infused with the actor/director’s characteristic bite and flair.
  • I Have a Date With Spring – Baek Seungbin’s hopeful drama follows three people as they each receive visitations from someone who returns something important to them and thereby holds off the end of the world.
  • A Lion in Winter – the latest from Lee Kwang-kuk (Romance Joe, A Matter of Interpretation), A Lion in Winter follows failed writer Gyeongyu when he’s kicked out by his girlfriend on the same day a tiger escapes from the zoo…
  • The Villainess – a young girl is raised as an assassin but starts to fall in love with her cover life just as the past returns to haunt her in Jung Byung-gil’s impressively choreographed action thriller. Review.

Philippines 

The Ashes and Ghosts of Tayug 1931

  • The Ashes and Ghosts of Tayug 1931 – Christopher Gozum looks back to a tragic episode of Philippine history in the failed revolt of 1931.
  • Neomanila – Mikhail Red tells a story of youth betrayed on the streets of Duterte’s Manila.
  • Nervous Translation – a shy girl in ’80s Manila hears tell of a magical pen that will make her life wonderful…
  • Respeto – underground rapper Hendrix tries to make it in Pandacan while the Duterte regime hovers all around the edges…
  • Those Longhaired Nights – transgender sex workers Tuesday, Amanda, and Barbie live their ordinary lives in Manila’s red light district.

Taiwan

The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful

  • The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful – ambitious widow Tang Yue-ying’s world threatens to come crashing down in Yang Ya-che’s Golden Horse winning drama.
  • Father to Son – a 60 year old man is diagnosed with a serious illness but decides to travel to Japan and look for the father who abandoned him rather than get treatment.

Thailand

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The International Film Festival Rotterdam runs from 24th January to 4th February at various venues in Rotterdam city centre. Tickets are available from 8pm (local time) on 19th January via the official website and you can also keep up to date with all the latest news via the official Facebook Page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channel.