Thursday, March 26, 2015

New movie review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Rinko Kikuchi stars as the title character in the new film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

The facts of the story are thus: Takako Konishi was an office worker in Japan who fell into a deep depression, traveled far away from home to Fargo, N.D., and parts thereabout, had several more or less unhelpful encounters with the locals, and killed herself one snowy November evening in 2001. Due to the language barrier, Bismarck, N.D., police officer Jesse Hellman believed she was looking for a fictional buried treasure implied by the 1996 Coen brothers film Fargo.

Perhaps because a story of buried treasure and Hollywood films and a traveler from a far-off land was too much for the media to resist or because the sensational urban legend seemed more interesting than the sad story of a lonely woman, the myth grew. We now know fairly conclusively that Konishi was not searching for the mythical buried treasure from Fargo. She was a troubled, broken-hearted woman who died alone and far from home.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is not the story of what really happened to Konishi but a thorough recounting of the urban legend. It relies heavily on what the great Werner Herzog would call “ecstatic truth” – a truth of emotional honesty deeper than anything offered by factual reality. The filmmakers do not communicate the events as they occurred but as they must have felt for those involved.

The film is directed by David Zellner, produced in part by Nathan Zellner, and co-written by the two brothers, a division of labor that mimics the way the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, shared credit on most of their early films, including Fargo. It feels like an intentional choice, and nothing in the brothers’ surrealist tragi-comedy does anything to contradict that.

For all intents and purposes, this is the Zellners’ most earnest attempt at making a Coen brothers film – replete with the kind of precise attention to detail, outsized characters, and absurdist quirks that define so much of Joel and Ethan Coen’s output. Now, bear with me because we are about to go quickly down a rabbit hole.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens with the statement, “This is a true story,” despite its being demonstrably not true, mimicking the Coens’ own use of a similar title card to begin Fargo. More than that, the Zellners use the actual titles as they appear in Fargo, cutting to close-ups of the individual words on a paused copy of the Fargo VHS tape.

In addition, This Is a True Story is the title of a short documentary made about Konishi, which attempts to tell the real story of her final days and rebut the urban legend that has grown around them. Thus, in just the first few frames, the Zellners are simultaneously telling the audience that this both is and is not a true story, subtly preparing us for a tale of contradictions with something deeper than either fact or fiction at its core.

It is a lot to pack into the opening minutes of a film, and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is necessarily dense. Though freed from the burden of the truth by their decision to adapt the urban legend, the Zellners fill their movie with the true details of Konishi’s journey, blending fact and fiction in a way that leaves the audiences as adrift and disoriented as Kumiko herself.

Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, whom you will recognize from Babel and Pacific Rim, plays Kumiko with the kind of shy reserve that wordlessly communicates everything we need to know about this character’s inner life. With her chin pressed firmly into her chest, Kumiko’s eyes are almost permanently downcast. Even before she travels to America, Kumiko finds it impossible to relate to those around her.

She lives as though she inhabits a parallel universe laid on top of this one. While the other girls at her work sit in the break room and chatter endlessly about the boys in their lives, she silently makes tea by herself. Her mother cannot understand how, at 29 years old, she does not have a husband and insists Kumiko move back home until she is married. An insipid acquaintance bumps into her on the street and suggests they get coffee some time. Kumiko cannot be bothered by any of this. As she tells a number of people she meets, she has important things to do.

With a map of the north-central U.S. liberated from a public library atlas and a hand-sewn treasure map she has created, Kumiko sets out for America. She ostensibly is searching for the mythical Fargo treasure, but the X on her map means more to her. It represents the place where she might finally find peace, where she can rest assured in the knowledge that she was right and no one else could see it. As much as she is journeying toward her treasure, she is escaping from a life for which she was not meant.

So it makes it all the more tragic that the locals she encounters, in their Minnesota nice way, tell her that her destination is no place she should want to be. She cannot communicate to them why she needs to go, only that she wants to go. The officer she meets, based on Hellman and played by David Zellner, says to her: “I want to help you. I’m just trying to figure out how.”

Even if they spoke the same language, though, he likely could not help her. We know this from seeing her back home in Tokyo. None of these people, either in Japan or America, live in the same world as Kumiko. They can neither see what she sees nor understand what she knows. They do not share a reality, so she wanders alone in the snow, seeking her own ecstatic truth.

See it? Yes.

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