Tuesday, February 17, 2015

'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' (2014) directed by David Zellner

A woman walks down a deserted beach. In her hands she clutches a cloth map which leads her towards a dark, damp cave in the cliff.  With the waves crashing behind her she kneels down, moves a rock and begins to clear wet sand away. Something is hidden underneath, wrapped in cloth and soaked through with saltwater. With quiet triumph she exposes it to the elements: it's a VHS Tape.  Later, having carefully dried it out she attempts to play it, the first distorted words on screen reading "This is a true story".
It's the Coen brother's Fargo; dubbed into Japanese, crackled by the elements and faded by analogue decay. Our heroine, Kumiko (an excellent Rinko Kikuchi) watches it with astonishment, taking copious notes as if she's an archaeologist deciphering a rare artefact. Eventually she zeroes in one moment.  Steve Buscemi's gangster buries a briefcase stuffed with a million dollars next to an endless fence in the middle of a snowy waste.  He sticks an orange ice pick in the snow to mark the spot and leaves.

This is the pot of gold at the end of Kumiko's rainbow. Hunting for hidden money from a work of fiction might sound pretty weird, but given the sorry state of her life it's hard to blame Kumiko for latching on to any glimmer of hope. At 29 she's stuck as an office assistant, her working day locked into cycle of tea-making, laundry picking up and mindless drudgery - death by a thousand tiny humiliations.  Home doesn't offer any comforts either, the only calls she receives are from her domineering mother asking why she hasn't married, her only true friend a pet rabbit named Bunzo.

Everything is awful.  And so, when given an opportunity to escape she grabs it, heading out to Minnesota with a couple of crude maps, a determined expression and the hope that somewhere, anywhere, must be better than this.

The basic outline led me to imagine this as a goofy meta-comedy, taking an askance view at the Coen's filmography and poking some fun at the naivety of a person who believes movies are real.  What Kumiko turns out to be is a solemn, stately and arty dissection of the nature of fiction, coping with mental illness and the limits of fantasy.

At the heart of this is Kumiko herself.  She's an extremely difficult protagonist to relate to, forever wobbling her away between loveable and unsympathetic.  She constantly makes coldhearted, bizarre choices without the slightest consideration for her health or those around her, driven solely by her lust for money.  Kumiko quickly turns out to be fascinatingly thorny, Kikuchi playing her as a painfully realistic depiction of delusion and mental illness, violently pulling the rug out from under anyone thinking they might be in for a kawaii manic pixie dream girl cutely interacting with dopey cartoon North Dakotans.

This dose of reality stems from this film actually being based on a true story.  In 2001 the frozen corpse of Takako Konishi was discovered in the wilderness between Fargo and Brainerd, widely reported to have died in search of that briefcase.  The reality is slightly more complex, but the film sticks admirably close to the case.  But in Kumiko the division between reality and fiction is more complex than it appears; Zellner creating a onion-layered miniature cosmology.

For example, we're given no reason to think that the surreal beach sequence at the beginning of the film didn't happen as presented; a touch of divine provenance injected into the fabric of the film from the opening frames.  This continues in the quietly mystical atmosphere that gradually builds; most notably when we reach the cold, blank paper landscape of Minnesota. In this vast empty space the divisions between fantasy and reality dissolve, leaving us with Kumiko's mangled perceptions as the only possible viewpoint.  

My conclusion was that we should embrace the possibilities of fiction as a way to craft happier stories, regardless of their plausibility.  While logic screams that a fictional briefcase cannot possibly be unearthed, within a film this can easily happen.  And we so descend from the sad fact of Takako Konishi's lonely death, down through the quasi-reality of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, and deeper into the fiction of Fargo - reality and imagination intertwining in unexpected, wonderful ways.

This isn't a film for everyone: you need to have a higher than usual tolerance for ponderous, consciously surreal drama and the stomach to empathise with an extremely difficult protagonist. But put some effort in and Kumiko rewards; from the elegant cinematography, oppressive soundscapes and interesting philosophy right through to the core of humanity that powers this insane quest.  Haunting and atmospheric, I couldn't take my eyes off it.


Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is released February 20th.

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