Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.

At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.

Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

These words preceded the Coen Brothers' 1996 snowy masterpiece Fargo. Famously, they were a lie. The directors added it to their original script in order to make audiences believe their crazy story about blackmail, murder and a professional bird-painter called Norm. In the case of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the first two lines of this disclaimer hold up. In Fargo, Steve Buscemi buries a suitcase filled with money and marks the spot with a red window scraper. In 2001, a Japanese woman unable to distinguish between fiction and reality travelled the United States in search of the treasure. This is her story.

Kumiko was executive-produced by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and it's easy to see what attracted him to the project. In Payne's last directorial effort Nebraska, we know from the start that Bruce Dern's mission to claim a million dollars is doomed to fail. Kumiko is in the same situation. Writer-director David Zellner treats this delusional character nevertheless with the utmost respect. The film takes time to investigate Kumiko's life. She strolls through the streets of Tokyo with the demeanour of a sulking teenager and she is unable to cope in social situations. Meanwhile, everyone is making her feel inadequate. Her sole purpose lies in an old VHS copy of Fargo, which she studies over and over again. These early scenes give us a strong sense of the character and her loneliness. Zellner plays around with music and sound in a clever way in order to channel Kumiko's inner disposition.

The director also makes the smart decision to avoid Coen-esque elements until the second half of the film, when Kumiko meets a string of eccentric strangers on her travels across Minnesota. Unfortunately, the film mirrors its protagonist's trajectory and loses its way slightly. Zellner indirectly and directly invokes a Werner Herzog-classic called Stroszek, but he lacks the German's strength of conviction. Where Herzog kills the American dream with a dancing chicken, Zellner lets it get off with a slap on the wrist. His conclusion doesn't necessarily need to be as bleak and cynical as Herzog's, but the ending didn't manage to have an impact on me. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is nevertheless an interesting character study about loneliness and the power of dreams. And it's a true story.

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