“Shari” is a wonderfully spiritual feature-documentary hybrid in competition in the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Directed by Nao Yoshigai (“Grand Bouquet”), this short, hour-long film meditates on human interconnectedness, impermanence and the increasingly related environmentalism that underlines both.
The documentary centers around the titular small town of Shari, which is located on the north coastline of Japan’s second largest island, Hokkaido. There are no principal characters other than the various townspeople living in the village, save for the ever-present “Red Thing,” a person in a monster costume that hulks around in the snow. The film alternates between conventional documentary conversations with the townspeople about living and working in Shari and surreal, abstract sequences of the “Red Thing” and its interactions with both people and in the natural world.
Every conversation with each villager starts with their unique role in the small town, but eventually the topics of conversation always converge to the broad theme of how Shari and its people interact with each other and the natural world. The typically wintry Shari is experiencing one of its lightest snowfalls ever, and the weather in the town has been strange in general. (There is a little footnote about how this is happening not just in Shari but in various other places in the world.) It seems that Yoshigai is making a statement on how climate change is a global problem for all of humanity, but by keeping the focus on one unique town and the individuals who reside in it, she is able to command the empathy of the audience and provide an emotional attachment to an otherwise decentralized issue.
The scenes with the “Red Thing” are hypnotizing and sublime. The beast itself is visually a cross between Bigfoot and a red-tinted Cookie Monster from “Sesame Street.” And underneath this “Red Thing” is a woman with baked bread and a bell that causes sonic booms. Classical continuity and editing fly out the window as the “Red Thing” flays around the snowy forest, commanding the attention of a little girl and the whispery voiceover repeating “Shari, Shari, Shari” that pervades the ethereal atmosphere. A minimalistic percussion beat aids this as well, as the camera rotates between the monster, the snow and a particle-laden black screen.
As the film starts showing more and more connections between the various residents of the town, the “Red Thing” eventually shifts from something found only in the snow of the landscapes to a tactile being that can interact with the people in the town — just like how the people are starting to see the effects of their existence on the environment and the entire planet.
A planet that Yoshigai reminds us is changing, and won’t last forever — just like the people and places of Shari.
But Nao Yoshigai masterfully keeps the mood of the film both pleasant and mystical without compromising the seriousness of the present existential threat. The movie simultaneously provides a fun, mesmerizing cinematic experience and leaves the audience with bigger ideas to think about that transcend the hour itself. It’s a wonderful documentary-feature and certainly one of highlights of the Ann Arbor Film Festival this year.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.