Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Based On A True Story: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel and Pacific Rim) searches for things. The oppressively rigid structure of her Tokyo life – represented in her mind-numbing job, her condescending boss, her overbearing mother, and her tiny, stifling apartment – makes her restless, and so she goes out searching for things, perhaps in an attempt to find a purpose for herself as much as any actual buried treasure. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner, opens with Kumiko’s search leading her to a shaded cove, where she uncovers a soggy VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). It’s unclear who left the tape there for her to find, and whose directions she’s followed to get there, but none of that matters: this first, context-free quest establishes the film’s tone of dreamy unreality, and gives Kumiko the first thing she’s had to strive for in years.

Kumiko is based on an urban legend that sprung up around a tragic true story, in which a depressed Japanese woman travelled to Minnesota in 2001 to visit her American lover and committed suicide by exposure, which led to her body being discovered in a field. Somehow the details of this sad and fairly unremarkable tale were conflated into something much more ridiculous: the woman, people said, had seen Fargo, and believed the (false) title card claim that it was a true story, leading her on a trek to uncover the cache of money hidden in the snow by a bleeding Steve Buscemi, which he marked with a bright red snow scraper. It’s as delightfully weird a concept for a film as it is in real life, something the Zellner duo capitalize on for equal helpings of charm and melancholy in their film.

Kumiko’s decision to cut and run from Tokyo is paced very well, and we feel her mounting excitement at the rebellious audacity of it all – a reminder of how easily we allow ourselves to become slotted into a societal system, and how little effort it actually requires to shrug it all off and achieve true freedom. Today, right now, you could stop reading this, pawn your possessions, and buy a ticket to the other side of the world. You probably won’t – but you could. The breathless exhilaration that comes with such a leap fades fairly quickly, as Kumiko finds herself without a plan, in a country whose language she barely knows, with a stolen company credit card that will only get her so far. Her own ferocious determination to get to Fargo – guided by the kind and generous Americans she meets, who seem politely perturbed by her but still willing to help – will have to take her the rest of the way.

Rinko Kikuchi in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

Kumiko is carried by Rinko Kikuchi’s wonderfully expressive performance, which is instructive in its depiction of life with depression. Kumiko’s fierce and bright personality struggles to break free from the fog of her aimless daily drudgery, which we see on both a micro (resisting the temptation to spit in her boss’s tea each morning) and macro scale (in her dogged determination to reach the end of her quest, despite all the well-meaning people around her who gently try to convince her of its absurdity). Kumiko won’t believe that the treasure isn’t real, because it’s not really the treasure she hopes to find. Hers is a desperately brave existence – she looks at once goofy and strangely regal, draped in a filthy stolen hotel quilt, her bright red hood and lily-white face framed almost geisha-like against the snow.

This tragi-comic tone is unwavering, which may actually be a point against the film. It can’t seem to decide whether it wants to embrace the despair of Kumiko’s hopeless quest or the tragedy of her inevitable fate; or rather support the sheer ballsy irrationality of it all and revel in her ability to choose her own destiny. It’s trapped in a tonal limbo, like Kumiko when she tries to set her pet bunny Bunzo free in a public park, screaming pitifully at him to leave while he just sits there twitching his nose. But since Kumiko’s strength is based in its fascinating premise, and the stellar work by Kikuchi (in making Kumiko an emotional force) and the Zellners (in crafting a beautiful aesthetic for her to search through), this doesn’t end up hurting the film’s impact. In the end, the hunt is the worthwhile part, and the treasure at the spot marked with the snow scraper is simply a gift for making it through.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism. 

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