Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/25/14 03:05:35

"'Fargo' seems to be inspiring filmmakers (and their characters) these days."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As much as people lauded "Fargo" when it came out, it was a singular, stand-alone picture that did okay at the box office as opposed to a blockbuster, so two different spin-offs of sorts appearing nearly twenty years later has to be considered kind of peculiar. Even more so: Both this movie by the Zellner brothers and Noah Hawlsey's semi-sequel television series leave the original more or less alone and are excellent besides.

In this story, a Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) finds a copy of the movie on VHS and, apparently taking the "this is a true story" opening text at face value, starts obsessively trying to figure out how to find the buried million dollars. Isolated at work - most women have moved on from "office lady" jobs one way or another well before 29 - and awkward in her personal life, she retreats further into this fantasy until she spots a chance to go to America and seize it.

Something isn't quite right inside Kumiko's head, and it doesn't much matter what it is, clinically; this isn't a movie about the way one escapes from mental illness, or even about how distorted the world seems from within. Much of it is spent showing how, one way or another, people can't see or ignore the signs of such issues, complaining when Kumiko doesn't fulfill their expectations but not doing anything to address the root causes. And while some of that seems to be the result of Japanese societal rigidity, it's not much different when Kumiko arrives it America, where even the charitable and well-meaning people are often thinking about how helping Kumiko when she's in obvious distress reflects upon themselves. The one person who tries - a kindly police officer played by director David Zellner - is simply unequipped to deal with what confronts him.

Those are all people who are just passing through, though; it's Rinko Kikuchi who is in every scene and never less than excellent. She gives Kumiko a constant, quiet sense of torment in how she's frozen, seemingly unable to engage with the world beyond the necessities, but she's also never a simple blank. There's confusion and anger on her face even when she seems to be staring emptily, and the moments when she briefly breaks out of that state seem amplified, whether in terms of being joyous or heartbroken.

She does this in two very distinct milieus. The Zellners - in an interesting parallel to how the Coens were credited on their earlier films, David directs, Nathan produces, and they write together - and cinematographer Sean Porter create a sharp dividing line between Tokyo and Minnesota, with the former being drab and austere, corralling Kumiko into tight spaces (it's no wonder she seems kind of furious when her rabbit doesn't immediately take to his newfound freedom) and rigid conformity even when there is some breathing room; her red hoodie sticks out as something that just doesn't belong. Minnesota, on the other hand, is overwhelming in its vastness; the white snow stretches to the edge of the screen and whips around to create a sense of danger, almost as if the space and adventure Kumiko wants is cruelly rejecting her.

The filmmakers based their story on a well-known urban legend, so the audience likely has a good idea how it ends, even though it's no more a true story than "Fargo" was. Knowing where this is going doesn't hurt the movie at all, though - it just makes the basic fact that people won't notice or can't do anything when Kumiko's trouble is there to see all the more tragic.

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