Wednesday 15 July 2015

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter: Heartbreaking and enigmatic

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Director: David Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard
Running time: 105 mins
The words enigmatic and confounding don’t even begin to cover David Zellner’s film, which could be about mental illness, the tyranny of conformity, or simply the dangers of getting lost in a fantasy world when reality bites a little too hard. Far easier to grasp is that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a haunting and ultimately heartbreaking work; one that boasts a fine lead performance from Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi, some stunning visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Porter) and an eerie, unsettling soundtrack.  

Kumiko is an “office lady” working in Tokyo for a boss she despises. With no interest in promotion, marriage or human company, she feels utterly alienated from her work-mates, supposed acquaintances and pushy mother. She isn’t lonely as such but rather chooses to be alone and isolated.

The one thing with which she is obsessed is the ’90s Coen Brothers crime movie Fargo, particularly the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of cash in the Minnesotan snow. She believes if she studies the film hard enough it will reveal to her the location of the case, as if it were some audiovisual treasure map and the events depicted in the movie were real. In the movie’s second half she flies to the States to retrieve the case, a trip for which she is ill-prepared to say the least. Startlingly, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is loosely based on a true story and it is one you shouldn’t read until after seeing the film as it spoils the ending.

Although she is in almost every scene, you don’t really know any more about the titular character by the end than you did at the beginning. Her backstory is a mystery. If Kumiko is suffering from depression or is struggling with, say, Asperger's Syndrome, no one in her life seems to know anything about it. There’s also a scene in which she literally runs away from a child in a restaurant that hints at something painful in her past. That said, perhaps by even suggesting she might be unwell or disturbed, I’m merely making crass and unhelpful assumptions about someone who, as the Henry David Thoreau quote has it, “hears a different drummer”.  

One thing is clear, Kumiko sees herself as very much the hero of her own story, whether it is a fantasy or not. In the film’s opening scene we see her uncover the bashed-up Fargo video cassette from under a rock in a mysterious cave like some Lara Croft-style adventurer. Is she dreaming it or is it all part of an elaborate game she plays with herself? If this is just her way of escaping an excruciating, humdrum existence, who are we to judge?

Zellner’s film (co-written with his brother and regular collaborator Nathan) poses a lot of interesting questions – ones that stick around in your head for days – but Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is more than just a puzzle to be picked apart. Kikuchi – Oscar nominated in 2007 for Babel – brings a great vulnerability to the role but Kumiko is also utterly infuriating at times. Being a free spirit can be a terrible pain in the arse for those around you, and her inability to trust, well, anybody makes her seem deeply misanthropic. Despite her behaviour, though, you can’t help but like Kumiko. She’s a rebel – spitting in her vile boss’s coffee and refusing to engage with the vain idiots in her office. Most of all you empathise with the character because she has the guts to leave a life she loathes to follow a dream, however crazy or misguided it may be.

The film’s second half – which sees Kumiko attempting to travel to the real-life Fargo despite speaking little English, having limited funds and no transport – is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for”. As Kumiko nears her goal she runs into harsh winter conditions – biting cold and deep snow – that she simply isn’t dressed for (at one point, just to stay warm, she has to cut a hole in the middle of a hotel duvet and turn it into a makeshift poncho). Despite being on her uppers, Kumiko continues to keep all comers at arm’s length and when she finally does let someone in (a kindly policeman played by Zellner himself) messes it up by trying to kiss him. Her short-lived “relationship” with the cop is quite telling – he’s probably the only person she encounters in the film who doesn’t either want something from her or expect her to behave in a certain way. It’s little wonder she is so drawn to him.

Rating: WWWW

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is available now on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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