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.

Respeto (Alberto Monteras II, 2017)

https://www.respetomovie.com/

https://www.respetomovie.com/“Respect” is a thorny issue, is it something which is conferred from a position of inferiority, an acceptance of equality, or taken by force? Should the older generation be “entitled” to the respect of the young simply for having been born earlier, lived longer, and have less time left, and should the state also be “entitled” to the respect of its citizens even if it abuses that respect? Respeto is the debut feature from Alberto (Treb) Monteras II but like much Philippine cinema it comes with heavy baggage as its scrappy youngster attempts to come of age in the hip hop dens of the Pandacan slums where all around him the increasingly oppressive Duterte regime brings back terrible memories for a generation only once removed from his own which paid a heavy price to rid themselves of a tyranny they now see returning.

Hendrix (Abra), a scrappy teen living with his older sister and her boyfriend who prides himself for his magnanimity in supporting his lover’s annoying kid brother, says he has the “mind of a gangster” and longs to prove himself in the underground rap battling world which represents a kind of escape from the harshness of his everyday existence. Hip hop maybe the music of the oppressed, but there’s little politicking in arcane world of petty gangsters and drugged up thugs. This is a world of humiliation – the rappers rap about rapping, about how their rhymes are sweeter than their opponent’s, how their opponent is weak and they are strong. Despite an often careful honing of a craft, this rap is vacuous – a misuse of words that could serve real purpose to do little more than replace the act of physical violence with macho male posturing.

This is certainly a very male, macho world. Inducted into the rap battle scene, Hendrix is tricked into battling an old veteran, Jambalaya – a larger lady with an intimidating presence, but all he can come up with is a steady stream of misogynistic fat jokes, badly delivered, before he wets himself live on stage. Jambalaya quite rightly destroys him with an elegantly delivered takedown which subtly suggests everything he’s just said is completely beneath him and is therefore doubly insulting. Hendrix is humiliated, as the loser of the battles is intended to be, but he’s slow to realise that the game itself is already a betrayal of its own power.

Having stolen the money to participate in the rap battle from Mondo (Brian Arda), his sister’s dodgy boyfriend, Hendrix hits on an extreme solution to pay him back – robbing the secondhand bookshop run by an old man, Doc (Dido De La Paz), seemingly suffering with the early stages of dementia. The plan fails because Hendrix and his buddies aren’t exactly master criminals, but as a result they find themselves tasked with having to repair the damage while Doc, mildly outraged by the youth of the day, begins to see enough potential in the obviously bright yet stubborn young man to want to try to save him.

What occurs between them is somewhere between a war of words and a war for words. Doc, now an old man, was an activist poet during the Marcos regime who lost a wife and child to its brutality. In the end, his words were not enough but unlike those of the rap battlers of Pandacan, they were both beautiful and filled with purpose. Doc’s verses were, in a sense, intended to humiliate a regime – in this they are not so different from Hendrix’s rhymes, but they failed to take the place of violence. A man of words faced with the possibility of revenge, Doc was not strong enough to resist but bought himself only more anguish in a single act of primal rage that soon forged another link in a chain stretching out in both directions across an eternity.

Peppered throughout, radio broadcasts make frequent reference to a debate surrounding the long delayed burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos who died in exile in 1989. The older generation fought an oppressive regime and thought they’d won only for their children to betray the revolution they gave birth to – literally in Doc’s case as his son became a corrupt policeman who abuses his power to humiliate those whose should “respect” he ought to earn through continued service. Rendered powerless by their oppressive environments, both Doc and Hendrix sought to reclaim their self respect by asserting their voice, but in the end their words find only empty air. Somehow awed by ancient technology, the kids find an old record of a Marcos era protest song in Doc’s bookshop and realise they already know the words. The singer, seemingly a young person, begs to be left out the political storm, not to be dragged into a war he sees as nothing to do with him, but an escape from this unending cycle of violence seems unlikely while words remain weightless.


Available to stream online via Festival Scope until 20th February 2018 as part of its International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.

Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子, Wang Xuebo, 2016)

knife-in-the-clear-waterTharlo producer Wang Xuebo looks north in this rare cinematic showcase for China’s Hui people, a largely Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the rural North West. Using a cast of non-professional actors, Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子, Qingshui Li De Daozi) marries a neorealist aesthetic with a Tarkovskian poetry as a widowed man faces the coming end of his own life largely through his self identification with his faithful bull, about to be sacrificed in the name of dead for the pleasure of the living. Setting religion to one side, this tale of rural poverty and people eclipsed by a landscape that’s as unforgiving as it is beautiful has an infinitely timeless quality even if this traditional way of life is just as moribund as the bull which drives it.

The family matriarch has died. Mild mannered paterfamilias Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) is now alone, bereft of both family and purpose. His wife may not long be dead, but there is the 40 day anniversary memorial to think of. Even if old Ma is not in the mood, Ma’s son, Yakub (Yang Shengcang – different actor, same name), is eager to make sure his mother has a fitting send off to mark her long years of sacrifice and toil. They could kill a chicken or perhaps a lamb, but with all the extended family coming in it might not be enough. Why not, he suggests, slaughter the family bull? They can’t afford to buy a new one, but the bull is already old and slow and no longer makes a good return on the resources needed to maintain it. Ma does not want this, but is powerless to refuse given all the financial and cultural concerns bound up in his son’s request.

All things considered, Ma had few pressing concerns in his life. He was not wealthy but he did not starve and does not seem to be unhappy in his lot other than his growing existential worries. Poverty is the normal way of things, but given the extreme need all around him, can Ma really conscience his son’s intention to spend lavish sums on a funeral feast which is intended to celebrate the dead – his own wife whom he would like honour, when his younger brother approaches him for rice in desperation at the thought of not being able to feed his pregnant wife? Touchingly, Ma visits a relative who relates a story of having met his wife in the marketplace not so long ago and lent her some money to buy a pair of shoes she’d been admiring. The woman meant to tease her by suggesting she ought to be able to buy anything she liked with her son’s fancy job in the city but could see Ma’s wife was upset as she sadly confessed that her son had his own family to think of and so she couldn’t bring herself to ask him for money.

Ma would have liked his son to return and farm the land as he, and generations before him, had done but Yakub tells him the life is so much better in the city – work is plentiful and much easier than tilling the soil in this inhospitable terrain. A scene of the family quickly whipping out the buckets and basins to harvest water during a sudden storm may reinforce the reasons he wouldn’t want to return but there is something serene about Ma’s simple life of prayer and farming which neatly contrasts with his son’s comparatively frenetic and nervous approach to life, caring more about the spectacle and less about the meaning.

This is perhaps why he acts so insensitively regarding the bull despite his father’s unusually sentimental attachment to it. Aside from being a long standing companion, as silent and pliant as Ma himself as they plough the fields and walk the mountain roads together, the bull serves to remind Ma of his own impending fate – an unwilling sacrifice to an unforgiving landscape. Ma, about to be put out to pasture himself, can see a kindred spirit in this weary beast, chained and cajoled, cruelly discarded now he’s outlived his usefulness. The bull, like Ma seems to be aware of his fate leading its master to wonder if, like the old story, it has seen the reflection of a knife in clear water warning of what is to come. No longer eating or drinking, the bull may not last until the fateful ceremony but whether its abstinence is a kind of self purification or a symptom of total despair, Ma is unable to say.

When the time comes, Ma turns away, wandering through the snowy, grave filled landscape alone until he finally becomes lost to us. The land swallows him, his chain may have been severed but he’s anything but free. Wang’s 4:3 framing is apparently inspired by Tarkovsky, as well as the painters Andrew Wyeth and Jean-Francois Millet, and his images do often have a classically inspired beauty reliant on static camera and noticeably contrived composition which may be at odds with the otherwise naturalistic approach. A sad tale of an old man and a bull contemplating the end of their world, Knife in the Clear Water is a familiar journey into the dying of the light but one no less well expressed for all of its subtlety and emotional weight.


Available to stream online from Festival Scope until 20th February 2017 in conjunction with International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Short clip from near the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

Suffering of Ninko (仁光の受難, Norihiro Niwatsukino, 2016)

suffering-of-ninkoAll life is suffering, and all suffering is caused by desire. Ninko, the titular monk at the centre of this entertaining oddity from Norihiro Niwatsukino, seems to have taken this to heart and is suffering more than most in his attempts to reach Nirvana. Suffering of Ninko (仁光の受難, Ninko no Junan) takes its cues from the Hyaku-monogatari classical Japanese tales of ghosts and the supernatural as its seemingly comic story of a pretty monk and his ironic talent for attracting the wrong kind of attention gradually darkens until its unexpectedly strange finale. Visually striking if a little rough around the edges, Suffering of Ninko has a pleasantly organic quality as if its narrator were really making it up as she goes along only to tire of it a little by the end and give us a suitably spooky conclusion to send us on our way.

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is the most assiduous monk at his temple. His desire for asceticism knows no bounds as he spends his days cleaning, polishing the artefacts, reciting sutras and meditating. The problem is, Ninko is just too damn pretty. Every time he ventures into town the womenfolk go crazy, even getting upset if they discover he isn’t among the monks despatched on the daily alms harvesting mission. In fact, Ninko has also attracted the attention of the two gay monks at the temple which he seems to find a little irritating but unlike some of the others this is a very real problem for him as he’s decided to keep his mind and body pure though total celibacy. This unfortunate and quite ironic talent of his which makes him some sort of magnet for the repressed sexual desires of just about everyone actually makes him feel quite bad, arousing all this lust but ultimately unable to satisfy it.

After a strange encounter in the woods provokes a kind of spiritual crisis in the earnest Ninko, filling his world with bared breasts and erotic visions, the chief monk sends him off on a pilgrimage, reminding him that a denial of his baser emotions is not the same the same as facing them and will only result in additional suffering. Whilst on the road, Ninko meets up with violent ronin Kanzo (Hideta Iwahashi), and gets pulled into the strange goings on in a mountain village where the men have been gradually going missing. The locals have laid these disappearances at the feet of Yama-onna (Miho Wakabayashi) – a ghostly forest bound presence who seduces wayward men only to feast on their vitality.

Beginning almost like a rakugo tale, the central joke of Ninko’s ongoing, largely self imposed, suffering is in his ironic talent for arousing sexual desire in places which he does not want it (which is to say everywhere). More than just good looks, Ninko seems to have some kind of magnetic power which sends almost everyone he meets wild with insatiable lust which is quite the problem seeing as he’s committed to remaining celibate. He may think that he does not feel desire but as Kanzo later tells him, this denial is a kind of self deception masking the fact that he feels it all too much. The strange and mystical encounter with a noh mask wearing woman (?) in the forest leads to a bizarre sequence of beautifully choreographed visions of erotic ecstasy accompanied by Ravel’s Bolero after which Ninko has some kind of breakdown resulting from sexual frustration.

This first encounter with the supernatural leaves him with a burnt hand and a burning mind but also with the lingering suspicion that his curse may not be of entirely mortal origins. Thus he originally declines to accompany Kanzo on his quest to end Yama-onna’s days of wild abandon in the woods to enter a period of introspective questioning in wondering if he and Yama-onna are of a piece in their mirrored need for and denial of sexual pleasure. When he finally meets her he gets a kind of answer to his question which relegates the monkish Ninko to the realms of the forgotten as the newly born legend of Ninko-bo assumes his form.

Inspired by the classical nature of the tale, Niwatsukino makes striking use of animation inspired by scroll paintings, ukiyo-e prints, and shunga all accompanied by the gentle voice of the narrator to add to the mythic atmosphere. In keeping with its inspiration, the narrative has a suitably throw away quality as if it were all being made up on the spot which of course means that it drags here and there and ends somewhat abruptly but then that is the nature of the tale. A psychedelic oddity which revels in a sense of playfulness undercut by dark spirituality and existential dread, Suffering of Ninko is a story for a stormy night, strange and a little bit scary but with its tongue tucked firmly in its cheek.


Available to stream online from Festival Scope until 20th February 2017 in conjunction with International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Out There (Takehiro Ito, 2016)

out-thereWe don’t move forward in this dance, comments the lady currently being waltzed by a charming lost soul. Don’t worry, he says, that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, Out There, the first independent feature film from director Takehiro Ito exists in a fixed yet liminal space, here and not there as its protagonist finds himself without the proper place to be. Conceived as a way of salvaging some of the material collated for a documentary on the late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, Out There takes more of its cues from Tsai Ming-liang or even Lav Diaz in its preoccupation with the intersection between time, existence, and place. If that all sounds to weighty, there’s a little whimsy in here too, but the intent is a serious one as nationhood (or the lack of it), drifting cultures, love and history all conspire to confuse and distract the course of a young man in search of an identity which is entirely his own.

Beginning with an interview or perhaps an audition, the onscreen director questions the man who will be our star, Ma, about his motivations for applying – only, characteristically, he doesn’t quite know. From what he tells us, it seems his interests are largely introspective, unable to find a place to exist, perhaps he can carve one out for himself inside the fictional world of a film. Ito returns to this interview (or series of interviews?) throughout the action as Ma shows an apt desire to dissect himself on camera. The director is a minor player as Ma takes over, but like Ito he is trying to recover something from the ashes of a lost project, his producer sitting to the side, neatly picking apart the director’s somewhat thin proposal for a film about a cross cultural couple in which “everything happens by chance”.

The historical relationship between Tokyo and Taipei is perhaps a complicated one (though significantly less complicated than with many of its other neighbours), but there is a third party in this difficult romance in the spectre of America. Returning to Taiwan in the second segment, notably titled Land of Shadows, Ma talks to his parents about their views on global culture as Green Card holding Taiwanese who never made the move. In his original interview, Ma explained that one of the reasons he came to Japan was that he always felt like an outsider in Taiwan, unable to express himself fully. Having spent some time in the US as a child, Ma has a feeling America is “not for him”, but has also found that Japan is probably not the place he’s supposed to be either, and unlike his family he does not feel as if he can simply live out his days in his native Taiwan.

In a final discussion with Ayako – the actress in the film which never quite happens (in a sense, outside of the way it’s happening for us), Ma talks about the importance of memory which prompts Ayako to remark that it’s as if everything is already in the past for him. As if to symbolise Ma’s lack of forward progress, everything which happens in Tokyo bar a single flash of colour at the end of the interview sequence is cast in sharp black and white. Taiwan, by contrast, is shot in verdant colour though allowing for 16mm and 4:3 framing adding to the sense of nostalgia and homesickness which seem to invade Ma’s mind. This Taiwan is a place of backstreets and ruins, faded grandeur and unseen histories. Empty cinemas and abandoned film eventually give up their ghosts, but it’s Ma himself who seems to join them as he fades into the frame, here and not here as he repeatedly doubts the matter of his own existence.

There’s a slight irony in the way America has been idealised as a place of possibility given its (until extremely recently) severing of diplomatic ties with the island nation of Taiwan. Seeking a home in a place which refuses to acknowledge the land in which you were born exists may make one feel like a ghost, but Ma’s sense of existential dislocation runs deeper. A kind of hiraeth, a longing for a home which doesn’t quite exist, becomes a force which propels and halts in equal measure. Skating around Tokyo on his roller blades, Ma has no particular destination in mind except perhaps to escape himself. He takes photos of places because he doesn’t want to point his camera at people, refusing human connections which will have to be broken in his ongoing quest for a sense of belonging. As the director puts it, there are many endings but as long as he remains fixed on the concept of “there”, Ma risks losing the idea of “here” which remains in a state of perpetual future past, outside of this liminal space in which nothing moves or changes.

Ito’s drifting, experimental approach moving between documentary, narrative and fantasy with the borders between each as unclear as the hero’s sense of identity is one which defies categorisation, as much about the idea of place as the characterisation of the two cities at hand and the ever unseen spectre of the hovering America. Poetic, wistful, and imbued with a sense of loss, Out There is a poignant exploration of cultural dysphoria and existential confusion in an ever widening world in which past, present and future become indistinct in an endless journey onward to place or no place at all.


Currently available to stream worldwide via Festival Scope in connection with the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Short scene from the end of the film: