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Posts Tagged ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’

Once more unto the Phoenix on a Tuesday night (allocated seating not in effect), for the kind of film that isn’t just difficult to find but is also quite difficult to describe. On this occasion the film in question is David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, an impressive vehicle for Rinko Kikuchi (possibly best known for Pacific Rim). And that’s the easy bit pretty much done with…

kumiko

Is this a drama or a docudrama or something else? It certainly isn’t a documentary, for that it opens with a disclaimer indicating that it is based on true events. However, that disclaimer is not, shall we say, native to this film; it is footage from elsewhere, and clearly obvious as such. Confused yet? We haven’t even got started.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is loosely based on an urban legend, about… no, that’s just going to get horribly confusing very quickly. All right (I hope you appreciate the metacinematic minefield I’m wandering around in here) – in 1996 the Coen brothers released their celebrated film Fargo, which claimed to be based on a true story but wasn’t. The story of the film includes a scene where a big bag of money is lost in the Minnesotan countryside and never recovered. In 2001 a Japanese tourist was found dead in the area depicted in the film and, as a result of some misreported conversations, the story quickly got about that she had died while engaged in a hunt for the mythical loot. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes this idea as the basis of its story.

So, just to recap, this is a fictional adaptation of an urban legend with no basis in fact, derived from a film which claims to be truthfully-inspired but is in fact entirely fictitious. (What was I worrying about? It’s all so thoroughly straightforward.)

The film itself is much less of a hall of mirrors. Kikuchi plays Kumiko, an unhappy Office Lady in Tokyo: at 29, she is too old for her job, unmarried, and under siege from her domineering mother. Her only escape, other than her pet rabbit Bunzo, is to endlessly rewatch and annotate an old VHS copy of Fargo which she acquired (in somewhat strange circumstances) at the beginning of the film. Her dedication to her plan is boundless and complete, even if it’s rather mystifying to those around her.

The opening, Tokyo-set part of the film is very much a character study focusing solely on Kumiko’s character. One could argue that it actually illuminates one of the great shibboleths of modern Japanese life, namely the extreme social pressures on young single women and the high incidence of psychological problems amongst them as a result (something I’ve had personal experience of, but I digress), but it seems to me that this is just something that happens en passant: the film’s interest in much more personal, even oppressively so.

In any case, once Kumiko departs for the United States the film takes a slightly different form, more resembling a particular kind of American indie comedy-drama where an eccentric protagonist travels around the Midwest meeting equally eccentric locals: if you’ve seen This Must Be The Place or perhaps Nebraska, then you’ll know the kind of thing I’m talking about. So a rather baffled Kumiko encounters some missionaries, a lonely widow who tries to take her to a mall, and a well-meaning lawman (played by the director himself), and utterly disregards all of their attempts to help her, opting instead to continue with her obsessive quest to reach Fargo.

Parts of the film are gently funny, and parts of it are surprisingly moving (particularly the scene in which Kumiko takes a typically idiosyncratic approach to releasing Bunzo back into the wild), but on the whole the film has none of the lightness of touch or surreal humour than one might expect: then again, given the subject matter, this is perhaps not surprising. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance is certainly very impressive, especially to anyone who only knows her from dodgy American genre movies: here she brings an introverted, deeply troubled, socially awkward character to the screen without being at all ostentatious or mannered about it. It’s a very restrained, controlled piece of work; quite how it will help Kikuchi’s US profile I don’t know, but fingers crossed.

I don’t usually talk about how films conclude, but you may be thinking that in this case how things turn out is a matter of public record. Well, maybe so, but… the ending of the film is distinctly strange and unsettling, nevertheless. Perhaps this is the director’s intention, but if so I’m not sure it works. It’s not enigmatic or thought-provoking, it’s just a bit weird. Nevertheless, it’s as well-executed as the rest of the film.

I didn’t think that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter quite lived up to the glowing reviews it has received from some quarters, nor is it strictly speaking a comedy-drama or even a particularly entertaining film as that is traditionally understood. It is ultimately a film about isolation, obsession, madness and death: an understated, occasionally witty, well-made film about isolation, obsession, madness and death to be true, but that doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the piece.

 

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