Credit: DOCNYC
by Michael Scoular Featured Film

Wisdom Gone Wild — Rea Tajiri [DOC NYC ’22 Review]

November 18, 2022

In Wisdom Gone Wild, Rea Tajiri returns to the subject of one of her earliest and best-known works: her mother. That earlier work, History and Memory, cycled through and interrogated a select number of images based on the limited artifacts and memories that Tajiri’s mother Akiko retained from the period that she was forced to live at Poston Internment Camp. While haunted by what it couldn’t show, the mid-length video was, structurally, a coherent and straightforward work. 

Strawberry Fields, Tajiri’s single fiction feature, approached the same subject at one step removed. Through the construct of a rebellious road trip, a band of outsiders carrying a homemade bomb make an un-premeditated stop off at Poston. The site of memory can then be judged as a place to be destroyed, abandoned, or voided out, all set to a slowcore soundtrack by Sooyoung Park’s Seam. Bearing the hallmark signs of a first film, Tajiri, whose film followed road movies by Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki but wasn’t assured a similar level of distribution, never got a second shot, and instead has since worked exclusively in non-fiction, on corporate and academic projects. 

Wisdom Gone Wild is her most ambitious work since that mid-’90s emergence. Akiko, we quickly learn, is no longer Akiko — not to herself, anyway. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and responds only to Rose Noda, a combination of her assimilated first name and an old, discarded family name. For Tajiri, the film then becomes less an opportunity to understand her mother through this diagnosis or the chronological effects of age, but an attempt to keep pace with the narrative leaps and associative complexity of her mother’s thinking. 

Tajiri’s film hews closer to what could be considered an archival record compared to something like Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, or even Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Never Eat Alone. She accompanies and stabilizes her images with an NPR-esque voiceover, though this is at least deployed sparingly. And she also provides terms by which to navigate the film: copious date-stamps, source notes (for slide-enlargement montages), and chapter headings. 

She also leads by impressing us with the image of her mother as a patient, though one with little interest in being treated this way. Not only does Rose speak, especially when she has a witness, with enmity and refusal of everything from Tajiri’s tone of voice to the act of visiting a doctor, she also addresses the camera, asking Tajiri to not “take my picture,” hiding her face, even kicking at the lens while lying in bed. 

Tajiri contextualizes these scenes, shuffling chronologies and revealing hidden information, as well as adapting in the moment as a behind-the-camera performer, in ways that intentionally never resolve: if in some scenes Rose’s autonomy is clearly violated, in others we see the shift between actor, scold, and fabulist that doesn’t radically change over the decades of material Tajiri assembles. While she doesn’t dwell on it quite like how she did in her earlier work, the question that hovers over this evident strain between the two is the same for Tajiri: what does she not know about what happened at Poston, and how did it change her mother? 

Tajiri’s voice, which alternately assumes an informative dispatch, a child-like innocence, and an uncertain, near-desperate demand, at one point tries to communicate some of her intent to her mother. Off-screen, she prompts Rose to take the camera from her hands, to look through the viewfinder as long as she wishes. The footage that results, dispersed throughout the runtime, is the most literal attempt here at a mutual contract between the two. But Rose’s brief trace of authorship can’t hold: these are all Tajiri’s choices, even as they act as her most sustained invocation of an inimitable voice beyond her own.

Published as part of DOC NYC 2022 — Dispatch 2.