Every once in a while you see a film which comes out of nowhere which turns out to be a true gem. I knew quite little about Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter when I walked in. Much to my surprise, this is one of the best movies of the year.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a lonely young adult who is at risk of being fired and is pressured by her mother to find someone to marry. The only thing she seems to find comfort in is her worn out, fuzzy copy of the 1996 Coen classic Fargo. In the movie, one of the main characters hides a suitcase of money beneath the snowy grounds of Fargo, Minnesota. Thinking that the film is real, she tells no one she leaves her apartment in Japan and flies to Minnesota to find the loot. In doing so, she embarks on a journey which forces her dive into the heart and soul of the human condition.
Many reviews have described this as a quirky comedy. Many of you by some of the premise may think of this as just some wacky, indie comedy like all the other ones. I walked into the movie with that basic idea of what the style of the film would be. Everything you think you know about this movie must be dropped out of the window. This is not a comedy or even a dark comedy; this is a melancholy psychological horror story.
On her journey, Kumiko meets many different people. There is this underlying theme in the people she meets in Minnesota. We see an old lady (Shirley Venard) who picks up Kumiko when she is hitchhiking in the snow. Her children have long since left her and she lives alone bound to the sadness of her falling days. She attempts to get Kumiko to stay with her and put down her dreams of finding the treasure. She is using Kumiko as a fantasy of having someone to take care of like old times. Later on we see a cop who wants to help out Kumiko; he goes along with her to try to find escape from what appears to be his otherwise dull and middle of the road lifestyle. All of these people play to what I think the film is trying to say about our main character.
We are following the life of Kumiko and we find that she is a very sad and hidden person. She makes up the fantasy of the hidden treasure as a way to cope with the darkness and anger of her mentality. Our main character rarely talks in the first act and talks even less when she gets to the US. This helps to present the tragedy of her character arc through the artistry and the direction. She is most likely quite suicidal and we get through what is given to us that she would rather die than accept that what she seeks is a dream. This is a movie that talks about mainly the dangers and problems of two things, obsession and loneliness. The film speaks of the fantasies and dreams we create as a way to escape our current situation; this is given to us here with complete clarity with beautiful moments of heartbreak and intensity.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say Rinko Kikuchi gives one of the best performances of the year but she is definitely perfect to what the movie is trying to get across. She presents isolation with a fine level of realism and subtlety that is needed to have the film work. She never seems to be playing the role very over the top and as a result the character of Kumiko comes off as a very genuine and thought provoking.
When I was writing this, I found out that the director David Zellner actually plays the police officer in his own movie. This is funny as I was just about to say how he was the big scene stealer in the movie. He plays the officer with a lot of humanity just like Rinko but he is given much more dialogue to work off of and in that he gets the right amount of time to give us a glimpse of the sad, simple life that he leads and the ways in which he deals with it. In the little screen time given, we see the kindness and compassion of a person almost equally as fascinating as Kumiko. It’s almost as if the actor had the same vision for the character as the director.
Speak of the devil; David Zellner I feel is going to be one of the huge breakthrough directors this year. The way he presents his vision is which such precision and detail. Every technical aspect of the movie feels very true to the vision of the filmmaker. Above all else, this movie shines in the endless control of the style.
The cinematography is immensely eye opening. The first act captures the endless, vastness wonder and heartbreak of Japan and then for the final acts presents the dark, psychologically unclear nature of Minnesota. Sean Porter finds a way to give us these two worlds in all there wonder while at the same time using the visual medium as a way to show Kumiko’s mind and descent into madness. The film is a joy to look at and it helped to absorb me into this world of our lead protagonist. The editing by Melba Jodorowsky is flawless as well as it keeps the film flowing without a hitch. I never was taken out of the movie and the movie kept at this natural pace which never seemed to be too quick or too long.
Of course I need to talk about the music and the sound design. I recently praised the music for Frank and while that movie may feature a superior “soundtrack”, the way this movie uses music is indescribable. The soundtrack transcends songs and rhythms to instead become gateways to the dark, depressing and horrific realms of our main character. There is a scene in the movie where Kumiko meets up with an old friend; this lady brings her young child with her. The lady leaves for a second to go to the bathroom and what follows is Kumiko looking at the face of her son. There is a zoom of the head and while this is happening a bleak and shrill noise raises to a deafening high before Kumiko flees. Its things like that that makes the movie masterful in some ways. The band The Octopus Project did the music and while I never heard anything from them before, what they created is truly haunting. The film uses the sound and music as a way to absorb you into the anxiousness that the film is trying to get you to follow. I have never seen a movie use music and sound the way this movie did it. I would really recommend seeing this one on the big screen if you can so that you can get the full scale of the vision of every note of the film.
David Zellner’s direction is impressive to say the least and he should get massive acclaim for what he was able to accomplish with the film. The editing, the music, the sound, the cinematography and everything else click together so perfectly that it leads for an experience that brings to life a large palette of emotions.
Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is a film that is wholly brilliant. This is the kind of movie that you need to see just to experience what can happen if everyone on set is in complete access to the same vision. Everything in this movie feels like it is in its right place. Every shot, every sound, every line is leading to the same clear and perfectly executed theme and presentation. I left this movie extremely fascinated by what Zellner accomplished and I really hope that all of you can go and see the magic and purity of the work. I am amazed how well this movie brought to life the thoughts of an isolated mind with such little dialogue and what it finds is both scary and heartbreaking.
Release Date: 4/4/2014
Directed by: David Zellner