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Movie Review

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

These beetles make an impression

One of the stars of Jessica Oreck’s documentary. One of the stars of Jessica Oreck’s documentary. (Argot Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 9, 2010

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About Jessica Oreck’s bug documentary, “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo’’: The title misleads. You want a 300-foot drag act that lip synchs for Godzilla before breathing petrochemical fire on him. You get, instead, 90 minutes of critters flitting about the screen. It happens to be a fair compromise. The critters ravish and surprise. They hatch, fly, inch, molt, and, on more than one occasion, do nothing so much as hug a stem. The film lets us in on Japan’s apparently close relationship with insects. Here we’d call that relationship a problem. There it’s an obsession. At a bazaar, one inky, scarab-looking fellow had a $206 asking price, and a beetle merchant owes his Ferrari to brisk business.

The film, which opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts, whispers more fancifully about the country’s spiritual relationship with its insects. Shintoism, animism, reincarnation: The bugs are part of us; next time, we could be the bugs. In her other life, Oreck is a docent and animal keeper at the Museum of Natural History, in New York. She says she views her film as an opportunity to expand young minds about opportunities for holy rapture in entomology . That accounts for the movie’s inability to decide how explanatory it ought to be. In lilting Japanese, a narrator recites poetry, recounts legends, and provides dribs of information about the insects themselves.

We meet caterpillars, moths, beetles, and creatures I couldn’t find in my illustrated bug book. (We don’t need taxonomy, although I would not have complained.) Sometimes they’re larval. Sometimes they’re big. And sometimes the movie’s camera can’t do them justice. A scene of fireflies lighting up a park suggests corner-store security footage: so dark, so vague, so incriminating. However, poetry arrives in the final 30 minutes. Oreck figures out how to succeed at making a film of nonfiction impressionism.

A parade of loosely, lyrically related scenes and images imbues the film with a wonder worthy of its subjects. The camera studies thousands of bugs drawn to an arrangement of white screens and floodlights. A pair of white socks wiggling on a train is juxtaposed with an insect squirming out of its cottony husk. The Ferrari owner sips from his jar of hornet-infused sake. Bugs dot television screens. A sequence of children fooling with a metallic rainbow beetle is followed — randomly, yes, but handsomely, too — with a shot of men reading on a subway with an actual rainbow arcing outside the window behind them.

Then there are the many shots of people crossing Tokyo beneath shell-like umbrellas. The obviousness of the comparison does not make it any less true.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO

Written and directed by:

Jessica Oreck

At: Museum of Fine Arts,

today through Sunday

Running time: 90 minutes

Unrated

In Japanese,

with English subtitles

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