Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2015)

* * *

Director: David Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi

If you're going to nurse an obsession with a film, you could do a lot worse than Fargo. Screenwriters David and Nathan Zellner (the former also directs and plays a supporting role) clearly have an obsession with the Coen brothers' 1996 masterpiece, albeit in a healthy enough way to have created such an affection tribute, and one which unfolds with the same kind of dark irony. Their protagonist, on the other hand, possesses an obsession of a less healthy variety - or, at least, a less discerning variety, as she takes the film's assertion that it is "based on a true story" at face value and won't be dissuaded from that position. At alternate times funny and heartbreaking, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a unique piece of work and a solid companion piece to Fargo.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an outlier in her world. 29 years old and unmarried and without the prospect of marriage, she's a disappointment to her family, and a curiosity to her co-workers who see her role as "office lady" being something that one does for a few years in their early/mid-20s until getting married and moving out of the work force. She lives alone in Tokyo, her only companion a pet rabbit, and takes joy in nothing except an old VHS tape of Fargo that she found at the beach and which she believes to be a "clue" to a buried treasure, rather than a fiction film. She takes copious notes while watching the scene in which Steve Buscemi buries his bag of ransom money along the highway, and even takes a piece of paper and traces the image of the fence to use it as a map. When things become completely unbearable for her at home, she decides to use her company's credit card (which she comes into possession of when her boss tasks her with buying a gift for his wife) to buy herself a ticket to Minnesota with the intention of uncovering the treasure she's certain is hidden there and then living out the rest of her days in peace and quiet and financial comfort.

When she gets to Minnesota, she encounters a great deal of kindness, but her tunnel vision leaves her unable to accept it. It's the dead of winter, a bad time to go traipsing around outdoors on a wild goose chase, but Kumiko isn't looking for any unsolicited advice; all she wants is to get to Fargo. She gets a bus ticket, but when the bus breaks down with a flat, she decides to proceed by foot until she's picked up by a motorist who is as kind as she is bossy. The driver is an old woman who has lived alone since her husband's death and whose son never comes to visit, and she quickly latches on to Kumiko as a salve for her own loneliness. She insists that Kumiko stay with her and tries to convince her that she doesn't really want to go to Fargo, resulting in Kumiko fleeing in the middle of the night. Shortly thereafter she comes into contact with another person who tries to take her under their wing in the form of a police officer (David Zellner) who picks her up after receiving a report that she's been wandering down the highway wrapped in a blanket that she's fashioned into a kind of poncho. After explaining her mission to him, he makes it his mission to make her see the folly of what she's doing and make her understand that Fargo is only a movie and that there is no buried treasure to be found there.

Like the movie that inspired it, Kumiko's story is kick-started by an ill-thought out criminal enterprise which allows no room for contingencies, in this case Kumiko's theft of the credit card, which she takes with her to the States and which is her only means of financially supporting her endeavor. It gets her far enough to purchase her bus ticket, but when she tries to pay for a motel room for a night she learns that the card has been cancelled and reported as stolen, a turn of events which she had apparently not anticipated. This is to say nothing of the fact that her "plan" to find the "treasure" is going to come down to nothing more than her belief that it is in Fargo and the "map" that she has created by tracing the fence from the shot in the movie. The film also echoes the earlier film's depiction of Minnesotans as even-keeled and unflappable in the face of nonsense, as everyone accepts Kumiko's story at face value and only try to gently explain reality to her, never treating her as if she's crazy. Unfortunately these people are really unequipped to relate to Kumiko and the film gets a fair bit of mileage out of the cultural and language differences, from the old woman's attempt to connect with her by giving her a copy of "Shogun," to the police officer's attempt to explain to Kumiko that Fargo is just a movie and its events were all made up by taking her to a Chinese restaurant on the assumption that someone there might be able to speak some Japanese.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is without question a weird movie, but it's one that demonstrates such a keen control of mood and tone that it works marvelously. It is also fortunate enough to feature a really terrific central performance from Kikuchi, who plays Kumiko less as "crazy" and more as desperately lonely and longing to be understood and acknowledged as having some value. At work she's treated like garbage, her boss at one point bringing in some bright young thing to demonstrate to Kumiko how easily replaceable she is, and her relationship with her family is deeply strained by her "failure" to live up to their expectations. She latches onto this idea about treasure hidden in Fargo because she needs to show people that she accomplish something amazing and get the praise that has so far eluded her, and as it becomes increasingly undeniable even to her that she's made an enormous mistake, she drifts further and further from reality and into the safer realm of self-delusion. It is a deeply internal performance, but Kikuchi is able to play it in such a way that we're given insight into what's going on in Kumiko's head at every step. If nothing else, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a terrific showcase for a great actress who never gets enough opportunity to show what she can do.

No comments: