SFIFF 55 — Tokyo Waka; Postcard From Somova, Romania; Wu Xia; The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi & 27 Years Without Images; the Queen of Ver

by Peter Wong on April 27, 2012

Like the jungle crow, John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s beautiful documentary “Tokyo Waka” swoops and gleans pretty images from daily life in Tokyo. The cumulative results create a beautiful ode to one of Asia’s major metropolises. How can a documentary summarize a major city’s soul?

Haptas and Samuelson’s answer involved spending several months living in Tokyo and letting their curiosity lead them to encounters with people and places that truly embody life in Japan’s capital. These encounters include a waitress for a maid café and architects talking about the 30-year lifespan of a typical Japanese building.

One of the film’s most intriguing interviews is with a very articulate homeless woman living off the grid in a city park’s homeless tent city. She may lack electrical access. But she and the other tent city residents have running water, regular mail service, and a sense of community.

One wonders though how they survive Japan’s often ferocious winters. Haptas and Samuelson also intrigue the viewer with their portrait of a society in flux.

Some old institutions, such as the practice of Buddhism, still enjoy continued observation. But the existence of urban beekeepers and artists who create stuffed crows resembling Pokemon characters provide examples of a society moving away from the regimentation embodied by the salaryman’s life.

Tying the film’s disparate vignettes of Tokyo urban life together is the jungle crow. Overhead footage of various Tokyo streetscapes are obvious crow’s eye views of human activity.

Haptas and Samuelson also bring in Japanese cultural references to the bird. Mentions of crows in everything from old paintings to traditional evening songs make clear the long relationship between the Japanese and these birds. Yet the current relationship between Tokyo’s human residents and the city’s 20,000 crows can best be described as semi-antagonistic.

Footage of the birds aggressively dive-bombing unwary humans makes a viewer understand the latter’s dislike of these birds. But the attempts to catch and kill crows only seem to cull out the weaker birds and leave more intelligent members of the species free.

Ironically, adaptability and invention is shown to be the common ground between humans and these birds. Crows’ inventive capabilities are on display with their using broken twigs to reach insects and their thefts of clothes hangers to build nests. The young Japanese who are trying to build non-traditional lives are adapting to changing cultural and economic mores.

“Tokyo Waka” gives viewers both an entertaining portrait of modern-day Tokyo and good reason to cast a wary eye at the next crow they see.

Andreas Horvath’s short film “Postcard From Somova, Romania” preceded “Tokyo Waka.” While cats, a horse, and other members of the animal kingdom took center stage in the film, the results ultimately proved less insightful than expected.

The opening shot of a shattered clock may have foreshadowed its subsequent footage as capturing an idyllic and timeless human-free existence. The initial footage is indeed delightful, with its images of cats inspecting a field and scenes of an aggressive goat using an overturned boat as an improvised cliff.

However, when the horse wagon’s owners return to ride home, the detailed footage of pre-trip mishaps feels overlong and self-indulgent rather than illuminating. By the time the end credits roll, viewer goodwill has been lost to irritation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Chinese remakes of Hollywood films. Peter Ho-sun Chan’s new film “Wu Xia” uses the same “small town man confronting his dark past” plot of David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.” Donnie Yen’s choreographed martial arts action sequences provide an exhilarating substitute for Cronenberg’s gunplay.

However, Takeshi Kaneshiro’s quietly guilt-ridden police detective/acupuncturist sadly pales by comparison to the complex and emotionally ambiguous palette offered by Viggo Mortensen’s family in the earlier film.

Eric Baudelaire’s documentary “The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, And 27 Years Without Images” offers an unconventional portrait of Far Left lives. May Shigenobu is the daughter of the Japanese Red Army leader Fusako Shigenobu. Film director and screenwriter Masao Adachi was a contemporary of such Japanese New Wave figures as Nagisa Oshima.

Adachi turned from filmmaking to becoming the official spokesman for the Japanese Red Army’s efforts to free Palestine and instigate a worldwide Communist revolution. How these two individuals’ lives converged and diverged provides the film’s core.

“Anabasis” means a military advance. Ironically, Baudelaire’s two subjects led lives that depended on keeping their existence hidden from the authorities. May Shigenobu frequently moved and didn’t keep many pictures of the various places she lived. Adachi lived in exile in Lebanon with the Japanese terrorist group.

Baudelaire structures his cinematic portrait to match his subjects’ hidden lives. Neither subject is identified up front or even seen onscreen in the present. The non-film clip footage of Japanese and Lebanese landscapes conveys a sense of anonymous oppressiveness. Clues gradually dropped during the film helps the viewer piece together the subjects’ identities. Yet the film satisfyingly ends with a sense that much of Shigenobu’s and Adachi’s personalities will remain unknown.

Lauren Greenfield’s intimate documentary “The Queen Of Versailles” encourages viewer pity rather than cheering its subjects’ transport to the financial guillotine. Jackie and David Siegel dream of building a 90,000 square foot mansion called Versailles. But their dream becomes endangered by the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown.

The Siegel’s down-to-earth personalities draw viewer empathy where more entitled attitudes would not. As the film follows the Siegels’ imposed lifestyle downsizing, how much of their questionable actions are based on hubris and denial?

(“Tokyo Waka” with “Postcard From Somova, Romania” screens at 3:15 PM on May 2, 2012. “The Anabasis Of May And Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, And 27 Years Without Images” screens at 9:30 PM on April 27, 2012. Both screenings take place at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (1881 Post, SF). For further information and advance tickets, go to www.sffs.org/festival/ .)

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