Sunday, 24 July 2016

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Year of Release:  2014
Director:  David Zellner
Screenplay:  David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
Starring:  Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuke Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner
Running Time:  105 minutes
Genre:  Drama

Kumiko (Kikuchi), is a bored lonely office worker living in Tokyo.  Living alone in a tiny, cluttered flat with her pet rabbit Bunzo, she is constantly pressurised by her nagging mother (Yumiko Hioki) and hated boss (Katsube) to get married, movie on with her career, or move back with her parents.  The only bright spots in Kumiko's life are Bunzo, and her treasure hunting expeditions, with her hand embroidered treasure maps.  On one of these expeditions she finds a buried VHS tape of the movie Fargo.  Believing the film's opening title card, which claims that it is based on a true story,  Kumiko becomes obsessed with the scene where Steve Buscemi's character buries a large case of money.  Comparing herself to a Spanish Conquistador, Kumiko completely abandons her life in Tokyo to travel to Minnesota with a stolen credit card, a very weak grasp of English and completely unprepared for the harsh Minnesota winter, to search for something that may not even exist.

Very few films have the power to be both inspirational and utterly devastating at the same time.  It was inspired by the real life case of Tanako Konisi who died in Minnesota in 2001.  At the time there were reports that Konisi was searching for the money buried in Fargo, but in reality it was suicide.  This is a film of two halves, the first detailing Kumiko's unhappy life in Tokyo, and the second depicting her quest in Minnesota.  Kumiko is always a sympathetic character, but not always a particularly likeable one.  She will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, and will beg steal or borrow to get what she wants.  However Kikuchi's mesmerising performance keeps us on her side.  Really, this is Rinko Kikuchi's film.  She is in almost every scene, playing a character who is very quiet, very closed off and mostly impassive.  However Kikuchi packs so much into every quick glance from her downcast eyes, and the flickers of emotion across her face, and the devastating moments where her control breaks down.  She portrays Kumiko's steely resolve and determination, but also heartbreaking vulnerability.  There are a lot of the quirks of American indie cinema here, and it does play like a deadpan comedy, particularly in the Minnesota scenes, with Kumiko's interactions with well-meaning, but clueless locals:  The elderly lady (Venard) who puts Kumiko up for a night and tells her she should visit the Mall of America instead and gives her a copy of James Clavell's Shogun to make her feel at home, and the deputy (Zellner) who tries to help Kumiko by taking her to a Chinese restaurant, thinking that Japanese and Chinese people share the same language.

The pace is slow and deliberate, the camera usually fixed directly in front of Kumko's  face or following her closely.  She is almost always isolated and usually when there are others in the shot with her, they are seated on either side of a table.

This is about being alone, either being isolated in a city or being a stranger in a strange land.  It's about the power of dreams to heal and to destroy - whatever the consequences to be paid, there is little doubt that Kumiko's life only flares up when she has the quest to complete.  In the end the money isn't important, it's about the search.

This features one of the great screen performances, and is one of the best films of recent years.  Perfection from it's opening, to it's devastating climax.

           Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

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