Books will always be my true love, but I’m a big believer in learning the art of storytelling from all kinds of media. I personally have a hard time committing to TV shows, despite the fact that television is having a renaissance right now (though I’m working on that!) But I grew up in a family of movie fans and movies–more condensed than novels, but also with a larger toolbox to work with–are really interesting and enjoyable for me to think about in terms of study. Also, movies are cool. Art is cool.
In this series, I’ll be spotlighting various movies that I found especially interesting. Obviously most of these movies will be movies that I consider to be successful art and enjoyed, but emphasis on ‘interesting’. There are lots of movies that are great but not in an especially interesting way, or movies that just don’t stick with me, or movies that I really like but not in a way that I feel compelled to write about it on a particular day. I don’t have a whole lot of time to watch movies in college, but I hope to at least write a film spotlight once or twice a quarter.
First up? KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER. This has been on my Amazon Prime watchlist for months before I finally got around to watching it a few weeks ago. I was always intrigued by the premise (and Asian female lead!), thinking it’d be an odd, enjoyable, interesting small-budget indie flick. Even with reasonably good hopes, I was surprised by how much I liked it. It’s a weird, slow-burn, darkly funny, compelling film, and even if that’s not your thing, it’s worth watching for the quality of its craft.
Kumiko is the story of a reclusive Japanese ‘office lady’, played by Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi. Her mother is impatient for her to get married, and her boss keeps insinuating that at 29 she is getting too old for her job (in a startling display of ’90s workplace sexism in Japan, he asks in a meeting not only about her relationship status, but her sexual orientation). But Kumiko is convinced that she’s destined to be a “conquistador” (Part 2 of the film, after she leaves Tokyo, is cleverly titled “The New World”). She discovers a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, and believing the cheeky “Based on a true story” disclaimer at the beginning to be in earnest, and that the movie’s treasure is still buried in Minnesota, she maps its “destination” and heads to Fargo.
Directed by David Zellner, KUMIKO is a very well crafted indie film, boasting gorgeously composed shots and stylized cinematography of both urban Tokyo and the notorious Minnesota winter. Kumiko spends most of the movie in a Little Red Riding Hood-esque red sweater and later, a patchwork blanket, which she sews to her sweater and wraps around herself for warmth. Even before the climax in a snowy forest, she cuts a striking figure, reminiscent of folklore and Brothers Grimm fairy tales. The pacing is languid but a hypnotic, very effective slow burn. Oh, and the sound is great. For the most part, there’s a minimalistic use of background score (and dialogue), resulting in large stretches of silence. But when music does come into play, courtesy of electronic group The Octopus Project, it’s killer. It’s distorted, trippy, ominous, and really just sensational.
The movie’s oddball premise is based on an urban legend about Takako Konishi, a real-life Japanese office worker whose dead body was discovered in Minnesota in 2001. A story soon emerged that she had frozen to death searching for the treasure in Fargo, having mistaken it for a documentary, though the ensuing investigation discovered that it had actually been a suicide. Though the film’s events are entirely fictional, the resonance–and weirdness–of that very real tragedy adds some heft to its mythology (and that of Fargo). This is one of the more surreal takes on a genre of movies touching on the darker side of fantasy and aspirations (appropriately, something the Coen Brothers themselves have touched on with movies like Inside Llewyn Davis). But Kumiko is also funny, and admirably, a lot of the film’s weird dark laughs come not from pointing and marveling at a disturbed outsider, as one would a freak show, but from the weird surreal logic of the universe it’s created, which extends outside its protagonist. The supporting cast (mostly unknowns, as far as I can tell) all speak with a strange, slightly stilted affect, which adds to the film’s carefully constructed artifice. The director, David Zellner, makes an appearance as a well-meaning but hapless Minnesota policeman who tries to help her, and their interactions are both full of cringe humor and strangely moving (he brings her to a Chinese restaurant in a hilariously misguided attempt to solve the language barrier; a later scene reveals that his kindness wasn’t lost on Kumiko, and that this maybe wasn’t for the best).
This is the first film I’ve seen with Rinko Kinkuchi. I was unsure about her casting at first–for one, she’s extremely conventionally pretty, far more than this character probably should be, and even with the film’s intentional weirdness her “dowdy” mannerisms seemed a little exaggerated–but once the film moves to Fargo, she does a great job grounding its eccentricity in an equally eccentric but devastating central performance. Even though the plot of a movie like this isn’t really the point, I was curious as to how Kumiko’s journey would end, especially given the story’s origins as an urban legend. I enjoyed the movie from start to finish, but even then I was unprepared by how much I loved the ending. It’s haunting and absolutely perfect, and ends the movie by maintaining exactly the right blend of strangeness and pathos.
If (like pretty much everyone) you loved Fargo, or (also like pretty much everyone) you loved Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, I’d highly recommend giving KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER a try. I’ll admit I haven’t seen all that many movies, but this definitely felt unique to me, and what’s more, it’s good too.