I’m sorry. I know you were probably hoping for a review of the soon-to-be highest grossing film in April – Furious 7. Well, you know, it just wouldn’t be fair to review the film without having seen Furious 2 through 6. I mean, that shit’s Shakespearean in its screenwriting. I saw that car jumping between two skyscrapers and I WEPT because I knew there would never be something so poetic , so beautiful
, and so inspiring ever again in film. I mean, to top ‘vehicular warfare’ with ‘one last ride’? Brilliant. If only I hadn’t squandered all those years watching ‘better’ films I might have been caught up on the extreme complexity of the franchise.
No, I’m afraid I went to see another movie you no doubt have never heard of and will probably never see in theaters. Sometimes you just crave the hermit-friendly atmosphere of an empty theater right? No, just me? Well whatever, we can talk about my social problems later. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is the topic of conversation here, not the crippling agony of living aboard a Zeppelin.
So, I need to offer a little backstory since the film heavily references the masterpiece that is the 1996 Coen brother’s Fargo. Think of these as a few ‘fun facts’ on film. Thank god Drive-in Zeppelin is so goddamn informative right? If you haven’t seen Fargo, please just do the world a favor and go watch it. It’s basically perfect, though I’m open to arguments if you’re passionate about another Coen bros film. Or perhaps you hate their movies. That’s good too! Yay for having your own opinions! I personally find their films to be very hit or miss but love Fargo, Raising Arizona, and of course O Brother, Where Art Thou. For the time being, all you really need to know from Fargo is as follows:
- William H. Macy’s character conspires to have his wife kidnapped
- He plan’s split the ransom money of $1 Million with the kidnappers (paid by the rich Father-in-law)
- Things oft go awry
- Steve Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter buries the money in a nondescript location for later
- The money is never recovered
- The film (as an inside joke) falsely claims itself to be a true story
So then we get to the story of our tragic treasure hunter Kumiko, played by the lovely Rinko Kikuchi (the chick from Pacific Rim). Kumiko lives a jaded, unsuccessful life in Tokyo, where her only friend is a rabbit named Bunzo that shares in her nightly feast of ramen noodles. She’s 29, unmarried, working a lackluster job, and surrounded by coworkers that she has nothing in common with. They also probably despise her because she’s pretty introverted and awkward.
After discovering a buried VHS tape of the before mentioned Fargo in a seaside cave, Kumiko steals her bosses corporate credit card and heads off to the frozen wasteland that is the American Midwest. Fancying herself a modern conquistador (and mistankingly believing Fargo is a true story), Kumiko sets out to find the buried suitcase of money in hopes that she can buy a better life.
Now in case any of this is at all sounding familiar to you, it’s because the dramatization of actual events – or rather a urban legend associated with true events. So back in 2001, an Japanese office worker by the name of Takako Konishi was found dead in a field in Minnesota. There was a prior misunderstanding between Konishi and a local police officer, and it led to rampant sensationalism in the media when it was thought that the Japanese girl had traveled to the region to find the fictional buried treasure from the movie Fargo.
There’s a pretty informative documentary directed by Paul Berczeller that’s only about 20 minutes long that goes into more detail. So definitely check out This is a True Story if you’re looking for a little personal enrichment. The great thing about Kumiko is that it actually embraces the myth and builds a narrative around the girl genuinely believing the money is real. The real Takako Konishi on the other hand is believed to have been suicidal and jilted from a love affair with an American businessman.
At first glance, this premise seems to have all the hallmarks of another neo-noir dark comedy in homage to Fargo. Rest assured there are plenty of laughs to be had at the expense of a clash in cultures between Japan and the bleak portrait of the Midwest, but at best these scenes only reinforce the tragedy of the rest of the film. Often times I felt guilty laughing, because at the end of the day, the story is a sad one, albeit with a happy ending
It’s a story of clinging to one last vestige of hope after being beaten down day after day. It’s a story of losing yourself in a fantasy because you fundamentally can’t subscribe to societal norms. Kumiko is depressed, isolated, and emotionally drained and wants nothing more than to make embroidered maps to fantastical treasures. With the exception of her encounters with unknowingly helpful Americans, she is constantly plagued by obstacles and naysayers that would see her conform to socially acceptable behaviors.
The entire movie is very quixotic in its subject matter, but admittedly it’s a bit hard to identify with the title character. While I think Rinko Kikuchi is a fine actress, Kumiko is just a self-loathing, ungrateful bitch. There really isn’t an internal progression for the character other than her general transition between depression and insanity. I get that the point of the movie is to examine loneliness and mental illness, but the series of inconsequential plot points don’t gel with the whole ‘love conquers all’ style ending.
Visually this film is astounding. I can’t say much about director David Zellner, but he certainly has crafted a beautiful work of art. Rinko Kikuchi dominates pretty much every scene, but through the use of minimal cuts and static shots, her bleak settings seem to come alive. There’s a little chiaroscuro here and there, as well as a relatively neutral color palette. Altogether I’d say the cinematography is one of the major takeaways from the film considering its relatively simple camerawork.
Naturally the film borrows a lot from Fargo, but it’s all very tastefully done in tribute rather than straight up trying to rip-off a classic. COUGH*THE BIG WHITE* COUGH. Just like in Fargo, there’s a lot of interesting characterization of the iconic wintery weather and blandness of the Midwest Culture. The use of pauses in both films is key, as it reinforces an already slow buildup to an important scene. Think of it like a punchline to a joke, but in a dramatic presentation instead of a comedy. Its very slow paced, methodical, and never wastes any screen time.
Even the accompanying score captures the spirit of its filmic forefather, though this is easily the weakest point of the Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. It’s refreshing to hear some of the iconic themes of Fargo infused with some Japanese flare, but overall the soundtrack is blaringly loud at times and often out of place. I guess it jives well if paired with the feelings of anxiety Kumiko sustains, but again, this is more a problem with a script not flowing rather than the individual components of sound and visuals.
Overall I’m a bit disappointed in this one. I think with a few tweaks it could have been a truly amazing movie, but it was buried by its own writing. Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend seeing the film, just don’t expect it to be on par with a masterpiece like Fargo. It’s not the easiest thing to balance drama with dark comedy, so I at least can award it an A for effort. Personally I would have enjoyed a much quirkier narrative, but if you’re basing a story on a tragic urban legend I guess you’re on a pretty short comedic leash.
The Bottom Line:
Overall it’s slightly disappointing, but I think still worthy of a watch. I laughed quite a bit, though it’s the type of film that you’ll be left thinking about for days (for better or for worse). It’s a pretty good examination of things like loneliness, depression, anxiety, etc. but it’s hard to relate to the title character. I’d say it’s a very tight film in that it doesn’t waste any screen time, but it’s marred by an obnoxiously loud (but good) soundtrack and an uninspired ending.