By Don Simpson | May 17, 2011
Director: Jessica Oreck
What sounds like a title for a Japanese monster movie (Godzilla’s toughest match yet…Beetle Queen! Conquers! Tokyo!!!) is actually an artsy audio/video essay about the Japanese obsession with insects. Writer-director Jessica Oreck’s film is way too meditative and meandering to be considered a documentary, yet not experimental enough to be considered — well — experimental.
Even Oreck’s motive is somewhat oblique. Maybe Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo is meant to be a video poem and sound collage about the philosophical obsession of Japanese to make small scale replicas of the world around them for telescopic contemplation (haiku poetry, bonsai trees, Zen gardens, insect aquariums, etc.); or possibly Beetle Queen is meant to draw visual similarities between the cultural and societal traditions of the Japanese and those of the insects they admire so fervently; then again, Beetle Queen could be read as a fairly broad statement about the commodification of bugs for profit.
I suspect that Beetle Queen is purposely indirect in its intent in order to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions. For example, someone interested in humankind’s relationship with nature, might walk away from this film pondering the impact this obsession has on the natural population of the insects in Japan. This person might ask: Does this truly represent the Buddhist notion of having a harmonious relationship with nature? (Personally, I suspect that the insects would possess more harmony if they were not held captive by humans in small plastic boxes.) It seems fairly selfish to assume that the bugs are happy. Then again, I have two indoor domesticated cats — and, yes, there are certain species of stinging and venomous bugs (and roaches) that I do not have any qualms about squashing — so who am I to cast judgment?
Upon sight of most of the creepy crawlies featured in Oreck’s film, most of the Western world would scream “exterminate!” faster than a Dalek at the site of Dr. Who; but the Japanese purchase insects (and related supplies) — the stranger and scarier the better — at pet stores, insect collector conventions, roadside stands and even vending machines. The prices are so outrageous that some insect hunters earn enough income (yes, by merely shaking beetles from trees) to purchase a Ferrari.
In an odd sort of way, Oreck (a docent at New York’s American Museum of Natural History) collects Japanese bug collectors as if they are the specimens, capturing them with Sean Price Williams’ gorgeous videography and trapping them within the confines of the silver screen for audiences to marvel. Oreck’s film does not appear to be condescending or patronizing towards its subjects; her motives actually seem quite innocent and sincere — similar to that of the bug collectors — as if she merely means to encapsulate a much larger world in a 90-minute video for viewers to ponder and reflect upon.
Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and Winner of Cinema Eye Spotlight Award, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo has just been released on DVD by Factory 25.