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KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (2015) review

March 27, 2015

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written by: David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
produced by: Jim Burke, Andrew Banks, Cameron Lamb, Chris Ohlson & Nathan Zellner
directed by: David Zellner
rating: unrated
runtime: 104 min.
U.S. release date: March 27, 2015 (limited)

 

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” sounds like a little-known Manga comic that’s been adapted into a cult classic Anime feature. Not quite. It’s actually the latest American drama from the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, writer/directors who previously gave us seldom-seen art house films such as “Kid-Thing” and “Goliath”. The atmospheric film has intriguing performances, an absorbing tone and score, yet its pace leaves us either frozen in frustration or restless in its glacial speed. Regardless of any qualms an audience will have with the film, there’s no denying that the concept feels wholly original, leaving “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” an easy recommendation, for a particular viewer.

We meet the titular character Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo where it becomes immediately evident she is an introverted social outcast, distant and rude to all around her. It’s unclear whether or not her disposition is purposeful or if she’s even aware of how she comes across. She lives with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, in a small apartment and works as an office drone at an indefinable corporation. Her co-workers and friends make attempts to interact with Kumiko, which pushes her even further into herself. It doesn’t help that her boss says that he considers her “too old” to be an office assistant”.

The only person she reaches out to is her mother by telephone and that usually concludes in Kumiko’s frustrated disconnect (often followed by tears) or her mother’s disappointment at her 29 year-old daughter’s shameful life status: unmarried with no children and no job promotion. Harassed by her mother, Kumiko turns to the one thing that she shows interest in: a distressed VHS copy she finds of the Coen brother’s “Fargo”. So obsessed is she with the 1996 film that when the tape breaks, she goes out and purchases a DVD player and a DVD copy of the film.

 

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The antisocial Kumiko takes that movie’s introduction to heart, believing that all events in “Fargo” depicted in 1987 Minnesota are “based on a true story”. Believing herself to be a modern-day conquistador, Kumiko flies to Minnesota, with no contacts or real plan, setting out to discover “untold riches hidden deep in the Americas”. How she is able to travel to the States is very perplexing and glossed over, but we nevertheless go along with it.

Kumiko’s inevitable arrival in a wintry Minnesota is where the film gets really interesting and the only time any real levity is offered. While it is quite clear that this young woman is troubled and quite possibly bipolar or schizophrenic, seeing Minnesota locals attempt to interact with her is often funny and yet it also makes the character sadder and even more pathetic.

From the moment she gets off the plane, where she is greeted by two friendly evangelicals, she sticks out like a troubled sore thumb in her red hoodie. She’s picked up by a lonely old widow (Shirley Vernard) in a pick-up alongside of I-94, who takes her into her home for a hot meal, who offers to take her to the Mall of America. Eventually, a local lawman, (played by director, David Zellner) finds her. Kumiko communicates as best she can to all of them, telling her listeners that her destination is Fargo which is dismissed with responses informing her that the city is too cold or too far, but her stubborn resolve remains intact.

The further Kumiko journeys the further she sinks into isolation and what could be interpreted as a psychological sinkhole. That all depends on how viewers take in the film’s ending. One could see the conclusion of “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” as pure folktale or pure imagination, Kumiko’s imagination.

 

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After two viewings, I found myself accepting “Kumiko” with equal parts frustation and admiration. While Rinko Kikuchi (best remembered for “Pacific Rim” and Oscar-nominated for her work in “Babel”) is tremendous in the role, showing a fascinating character arch solely with her expressions. Yet it’s hard to connect with her character or find her likeable, even though we’d like to. I got over that the more I thought about how pathetic she is and how much we all have an unlikeable side. Hopefully none of us have a habit of spitting in our boss’ tea though, nor are we suddenly running out of a restaurant, abandoning our friend and her child we agreed to meet. Sure she’s awkward and has issues, but it’s clear that we come into her life at the one time she’s decided to take charge of her life. As frustrating as her character is, I couldn’t help having a weird admiration for her (and in turn, the movie) as well.

It’s ironic that a pair of brothers wrote “Kumiko”, just like the classic Coen Brothers film that plays a major role within their own feature. It’s also ironic that the Zellners were inspired by the urban legend of Takako Konishi, a Japanese office worker who was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota in 2001. That story was detailed in the 2003 documentary “This is a True Story”, available on vimeo.

Indeed, the Zellner brothers, with David at the helm, have crafted a film that feels like a parallel offshoot to “Fargo”, both the film and the recent hit television series. The cinematography by Sean Porter carries the same mood and tone used in “Fargo”, although the open landscapes and harsh conditions of “Kumiko” serve to accentuate her isolation even more.

In that sense, this is a more artful film and it definitely has me curious about Zellner’s other work. Kumiko, with her self-made poncho of many colors, is a character whose naiveté and obsessiveness stands out. “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” also stands out as an original feature, indefinable and odd, yet worthy of word-of-mouth viewing.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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