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Rotterdam Dispatch #1: Enigmas and Insanity From Japan and Thailand

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Ploy,” Fortissimo Films/Five Star Entertainment, 2007]

As I sit in the crowded hall of the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s main building, I’m drowning in an atmosphere of harried conviviality. At the table next to me, three ladies promoting “Lucky 7,” an omnibus Thai film, are exchanging information with a charming Texan whose short film is premiering at the fest. This is the scene all over this wet and windy city, as independent filmmakers the world over are making contacts and crossing their fingers for that one good Variety review that could lead to financing for their next project (or at least a future festival life for their film).

In its 37th year, this festival defines itself by its independence — specifically its focus on young filmmakers, many of whom are from developing nations. (As a result, Rotterdam devotes the Tiger Awards Competition to a group of 15 first or second time filmmakers lucky enough to make the main selection.) This maverick spirit was instilled by Hubert Bals, the festival’s founder, who encouraged an idiosyncratic mix of ambitious unknowns and experimental pioneers, and programs of high-wire genre freakouts and rare retrospectives. His legacy lives on through the Hubert Bals Fund, which gives money to young filmmakers in the developing world, helping to produce such films as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Climates” and Carlos Reygadas’s “Japón.”

This year, the festival has a new director in Rutger Wolfson, but according to veterans of the fest, it seems little has changed. The Tiger Awards Competition is still the centerpiece of Rotterdam, but there’s an embarrassment of cinematic riches behind every program, including the auteur-driven Kings & Aces section, the midnight movie shenanigans of Rotterdammerung, and a raft of options I haven’t delved into yet, including the retrospective of fourth-generation Chinese filmmakers and the avant-garde Exploding Cinema sidebar (complete with a theater designed to ape Tsai Ming-liang’s Taipei cine-palace from “Goodbye, Dragon Inn”).

So far, I’ve seen five of the Tiger contenders, and the most impressive is “Waltz in Starlight,” directed by noted Japanese still photographer Shingo Wakagi. A shambling reminiscence about his witty grandfather and the lazy tempo of their beachside town, “Starlight” nimbly mixes documentary techniques with fiction to create the impression of a fine-tuned home movie. Koishi Kim, a veteran manzai performer (a stand-up comic in his native Japan), plays the acerbic gramps with studied cantankerousness and glimpses of grace beneath. The others competing for Tigers are less accomplished, including “Go with Peace Jamil,” a head-scratcher that reduces the Sunni-Shiite conflict to shopworn action film clichés.

Curiously placed in the Sturm und Drang section for up-and-coming filmmakers, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s latest work, “Ploy,” was another early highlight. Known stateside for his 2004 release “Last Life in the Universe,” Ratanaruang has been making the festival rounds for a decade and would certainly seem more at home with the more established folks in Kings & Aces section. Regardless, his dreamlike reverie of marital breakdown (which premiered at Cannes in 2007) deserves to be seen. A couple who emigrated to the U.S. return to Thailand for a funeral and check into a modernist Bangkok hotel, where their somnambulistic mind games begin and banal jealousies erupt into violent revenge fantasies. With puzzle-like complexity, Ratanaruang infuses everyday objects, including a necklace, a cigarette lighter and an expensive suit, with the paranoias and euphorias of erotic couplings, creating an impressionistic, demanding, and entirely enigmatic ode to the mysteries of love.

After catching up with some New York Film Festival titles I’d missed (Ken Jacobs’ rapturous investigation into pre-cinema, “RAZZLE DAZZLE the Lost World,” and José Luis Guerin’s superb “In the City of Sylvia”), I sat down to the most purely entertaining title of the fest so far in Matsumoto Hitoshi’s brilliantly eccentric “Dai-Nipponjin” (or, “Big Man Japan”). A popular comedian on Japanese TV, Hitoshi’s persona is fully honed — he speaks with a halting delivery so deadpan it reaches beyond comedy into the realm of psychosis. He plays Dai Sato, the last remaining employee of Japan’s Department of Monster Defense. Employing a faux-documentary style, Hitoshi is questioned about his adoration of folding umbrellas (they get big only when they’re needed) and his distrust of America, giving plenty of room for long pauses. He leaves you hanging for the punchline, the humor arising from the lack of one.

The true insanity begins when Hitoshi begins fighting the monsters, with such evocative names as “The Strangling Monster” and “The Stink Monster.” Jacked up with electricity and standing inside of a giant pair of drawers, Hitoshi is super-sized and battles the beasts with a steel rod and a mightily hairy back. With surprisingly effective computer effects, Hitoshi dispatches the freaks with aplomb, but the TV ratings for his show are in the pits — so much so it airs at the prime slot of 2:40 in the morning and his agent splashes ads across his chest. The story takes a number of wild turns, eventually ending on a note of surreal televisual bliss — Hitoshi finding the answer to his depressive state in the rubber suits of old.

[Additional photos: “Waltz in Starlight,” Youngtree films, Tohokushinsha Film Corporation, 2007; “Dai-nipponjin,” Yoshimoto Kogyo Co., Ltd., Realproducts, 2007]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…