Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

Rinko Kikuchi looks forward to a continued brilliant career.

(2014) Drama (Amplify) Rinko Kikuchi, Noboyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Kanako Higashi, Ichi Kyokaku, Ayaka Ohnishi, Mayuko Kawakita, Takao Kinoshita, Yumiko Hioki, Natsuki Kanno, Brad Prather, Earl Milton, Madde Gibba, Phil Hall, Ravi Jasthi, Lucy Luu, Jim Wescott, John Edel, Fredrika Dukes, Kirsten Gregerson. Directed by David Zellner

Florida Film Festival 2015

We are all searching for something. Be it a spiritual goal, an esoteric concept or something concrete, we spend most of our lives in search of something. Usually that search is just a part of who we are, a means of achieving some sort of meaning. Sometimes, however, the search consumes us.

Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a Tokyo office lady, a kind of executive assistant. Like many things in the world of Japanese business, her role is heavily choreographed, from the hierarchy within the office, to the role she is expected to play to even the clothes she must wear – black skirt, white blouse, plaid vest. There are those who would say that it is a sexualizing of the position, taking women fulfilling valuable support roles and reducing them to little more than a pornographic icon.

Kumiko trudges through life in a kind of a daze, as if she’s drugged. She communicates in barely audible muttering, commits small acts of anonymous defiance (like spitting into her boss’s tea) and accepting the abuse of both her boss and her overbearing mother.

In a sea cave she discovers a buried tape of the Coen Brothers brilliant Fargo and gets the idea that the suitcase full of money that is buried near an anonymous fence post in the film by Carl Showalter (the Steve Buscemi character) is really still there, waiting for her to dig up. The idea takes root in her and becomes impossible to dislodge; it consumes her attention.

When the opportunity presents itself for her to flee to America, she takes it, leaving her beloved bunny Bunzo in a subway car (an earlier attempt to set Bunzo free in a park didn’t go the way Kumiko planned when Bunzo refused to hop off to freedom). Once in America, completely broke, she single-mindedly makes her way in the general direction of Fargo, with and sometimes despite the help of well-meaning Americans with whom she communicates in broken English. One well-meaning and generous deputy sheriff (D. Zellner) tries to tell her that the movie isn’t a documentary and the treasure isn’t really there but she refuses to believe it and freaks out about it a little. To Kumiko, there is nothing more real than the treasure which she believes is the ticket out of her terrible, constricting life and the way to true happiness.

This movie played the recent Florida Film Festival and received mostly positive response although there were some who felt differently. In all honesty, I can see both points and how you respond to this movie is going to depend on your point of view about a few things.

However, I don’t think anyone is going to deny that Kikuchi is brilliant in this movie. She doesn’t play Kumiko’s gradual downward spiral broadly; instead, it is a subtle thing, a gradual loosening of grasp on reality. She seems to realize that life is passing her by but is uncomfortable talking about such unpleasant things; when her boss asks her how old she is, she responds 29 but in truth she looks much older and this isn’t to say that Kikuchi isn’t a beautiful young woman; her eyes reflect the kind of despair that comes with age.

I like a lot of things that the Zellner Brothers (director/co-writer/actor David, producer/co-writer/actor Nathan) do here, in terms of writing a thought-provoking script with an ending which might seem ambiguous but really isn’t. Visually, Kumiko’s red jacket stands out whether in a crowded Tokyo subway station or trudging in a field of snow in Minnesota. Even when she makes a make-shift coat from a hotel comforter she becomes a kind of bedraggled Conquistador on a quest for El Dorado, an image Kumiko herself subscribes to. Little things like that make the film all the more delightful.

The score is done here by frequent Zellner Brothers collaborators The Octopus Project and it won a special jury prize at Sundance. Da Queen didn’t care much for it, claiming it gave her a headache but in all honesty I think the score is part of the means that the filmmakers are using to portray Kumiko’s descent into madness, as well as her humdrum existence in Tokyo.

The pace moves a bit slowly – Kumiko doesn’t arrive in America until about 45 minutes in – but I think that if you can overlook that the story is being told at its own pace you will be engrossed by it. There are moments that are genuinely funny (and not all of a “fish out of water” nature – some of the best laughs occur while Kumiko is in Japan) and some that will elicit a great deal of pathos, like a phone call near the end of the film that Kumiko has with her mother and slowly realizes that she will never be the woman her mother wants her to be – and that her mother will never accept her. This realization is done very quietly and without histrionics, just a sad expression and a slow movement of her hands. One more reason to qualify Kikuchi as one of the more brilliant actresses of the day.

REASONS TO GO: Outstanding performance by Kikuchi. Thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: Very slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the urban legend of Takako Konishi, whom the media erroneously reported in 2001 had come to the United States to find the treasure depicted in Fargo.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is a True Story
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Overnight

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