Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter full movie review - There's more to life than a little money, ya know.
I admit that I am a sucker for a film about people who are driven to perform impossible tasks, even in the face of insanity. It's one of the reasons why I mark Werner Herzog as one of my favorite directors.
Indeed, he's carved out a career by telling stories, both real and imagined, of men obsessed with conquering the elements to achieve their goals. But Herzog has, so far as I know, not explored the concept of someone being consistently driven to do something that truly is impossible. This idea is the kernel that sparks Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the first film I saw at my local film festival today.
I was aware of the tale, real or imagined, that surrounds the film long before the first frame was shot; according to urban myth, a young Japanese woman was found frozen to death in the snows of Minnesota in the early 2000s. The woman had evidently been attempting to find a suitcase stuffed with a million dollars in cold (heh) hard cash, buried somewhere along the wintry stretches of highway. The woman had evidently gotten this idea because she'd seen the burial of the money in the Coen Brothers' film Fargo.
Another pair of brothers, David and Nathan Zellner, were inspired by this tale and made this film. Quite simply, Kumiko is an absurdist fable, the tale of a folly that we want so very much to be surrendered . . . and at the same time, we hope that the hopeless can be achieved. The loving references and homages to the Coen film start right from the beginning, with a close- up shot of Fargo's epigraph; specifically, the line that insists "This is a true story." The Coens, in order to inject an air of realism to their work, added this to their film despite it being completely untrue.
The message, however, didn't seem to find its way to Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a morose, mopey Tokyo office lady in the waning days of her twenties. Kumiko is the furthest thing from a social butterfly there is, instead preferring the company of her pet rabbit in the squalid flat she occupies alone. She is regarded by her boss to be aimless in life; her mother harps on her consistently about not being married. What little enjoyment Kumiko gets in life is in her treasure-hunting jaunts. One such quest leads her to a beachside cave, where she finds a battered, grimy VHS copy of Fargo?a tape that will set her on her destiny. She is entranced by the film's promise of an unclaimed fortune buried in the white wastes of Minnesota, but soon that enthrallment becomes obsession, which soon inches into something close to madness by the end.
It's hard enough to understand such an obsession in the first place, and even more so when there's a language and culture barrier, and even more so when the protagonist in question barely strings a sentence together for much of the first half of the film. Yet there is something endearing about Kumiko, whose dead-end life desires some sort of liberty. We are charmed even further by the film, which takes the bleak absurdity and finds great humor in it; the film is peppered with many hilarious visual moments that had my audience roaring with approval. And yet there is an emotional resonance to the tale, and an unsettling sense of inevitability. It's not that it's predictable, though it is; it's that we know we're on a collision course with tragedy and we're powerless to stop it.
Fed up at last, Kumiko (with the aid of a pilfered company credit card) buys a plane ticket to Minneapolis, and immediately we see just how unprepared for this journey she is. It's the dead of winter, she's not dressed for it, Fargo is a long ways away, and she can barely speak English. And so Kumiko drifts towards her destination by meeting eclectic characters along the way, including a kindly old widow (Shirley Venard, who feels like she could be a retired Marge Gunderson at times) and a helpful sheriff's deputy (the director Zellner in a self- inserted cameo that nevertheless feels earnest and heartwarming; his scenes with Kikuchi are the film's highlights, to me). Yet the wheels on Kumiko's plan, nascent as it is, are coming off fast, and she refuses whenever someone tries to explain to her why her plan won't work.
Kikuchi, who has carved a niche in playing withdrawn characters in films such as Babel, The Brothers Bloom and Pacific Rim, effectively portrays Kumiko's despondency and plaintive insistence that it's real, all of it's real, and anyone who doesn't believe her is a fool. There is desperation in her voice, and watching her is like seeing a zealot beginning to lose conviction even as the proof of her faith is evaporating before her. These moments are backstopped by lighter scenes; there is, for example, a gut-busting bit of cultural insensivity when the deputy, unable to bridge the language gap between himself and Kumiko, can think of nothing else except to take her to a local Chinese restaurant.
The film is not without its flaws, and some of them are nagging. Who left the tape for Kumiko to find in that cave? Why did she not research the film, even in the pre-IMDb days, and read the trivia that stated the Coens had made it all up? Why was she seeking out the city of Fargo, when the crime in question and the resulting action in the film take place elsewhere? Imperfect though it is, though, Kumiko still works, and at times it is transcendent. The final moments of the film, rather than wallow in grimness, feel uplifting, almost joyous. Herzog may very well not have taken this tack if he'd told this tale, so perhaps it is for the best that he didn't.