Review: Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

kumiko-the-treasure-hunter-poster

One of the ways I’ve found in the past to get through the hellscape that is the January and February movie season is by zeroing in on one or two movies I’m actually looking forward to and focusing on them. This allows me to have some hope for the future while simultaneously helping me ignore the ocean of garbage then tends to come out in those the early months of the year.

And as anyone who follows me on Twitter would know, for most of this year, the movie I’ve been focusing on has been Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (…okay also It Follows but this won the toss up). So when the universe finally saw fit to bring it within a reasonable distance of me, I went to see it as fast as I possibly could.

The plot is a heavily fictionalized retelling of the urban legend surrounding the death of Takako Konishi (no that’s not a spoiler, it deviates pretty heavily from reality).  Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a underpaid and overworked Office Girl living in Tokyo. She is also possibly mentally ill, or at the very least extremely isolated and depressed, but the movie is unspecific.

About the only thing she can focus on is an aging copy of Fargo on VHS. She obsessively watches the scene where Steve Buscemi buries the million dollars in the snow over and over, completely convinced that the film is real and the money is really out there. After a series of events repeatedly demonstrate to her how her life is going nowhere, she steals her company’s credit card and flies to America, determined to find the money.

Of course piggybacking off Fargo, a modern classic (and one of my personal favorites) is already rather bold, even if the connection is tangential. I’m happy to say though that the film avoids anything that could be termed ‘Fanservice.’ No cameos from actors from Fargo, no revisiting locations, not even an appearance of the Minnesota Nice accent, which you would expect would be a natural fit. The movie, as the title implies, is much more about Kumiko and her journey, both psychological and physical.

"Okay Bunzo, your motivation for this scene is: You are a bunny."

“Okay Bunzo, your motivation for this scene is: You are a bunny.”

In that respect, a lot of the movie is riding on Rinko Kikuchi. As her performance in Babel proved, she’s a brilliant actress in the right role and well versed at acting without speaking. Her character’s inability to properly communicate is at the center of her character, fueling her isolation and inability to explain her goal.

The movie, as is so often the case with good movies, never feels like telling us what exactly is wrong with her (although something clearly is) and it’s therefore up to Kikuchi to let us know what she’s thinking, and more importantly, sell the fact that no one else can figure out what she’s thinking. It’s an odd performance, made up of ticks and stares and odd misinterpreting of social cues, but it’s definitely a memorable one.

She doesn’t get much support from the rest of the cast, as even the most heavily used supporting character (a Policeman played by the director, David Zellner) is barely in the movie. Her mother, who is clearly pretty key to why she’s isolated, never so much as appears on screen, acting as a hovering presence over the whole movie. Instead, the most heavy support she gets is from the director. The film is incredibly focused on her, without even so much as a jump to another character’s perspective.

"I'm looking for the brothel Carl and Gaear visit to use as a starting point... Yes that's the only reason!"

“I’m looking for the brothel Carl and Gaear visit to use as a starting point…
Yes that’s the only reason!”

The editing and cinematography back this up, even if the director is clearly a little too enamored with a character leaving and returning to a held shot. The tight focus on Kumiko and long held shots help put the audience in her mindset, and emphasize the awkwardness that she clearly feels. I expected a major shift in camera work or editing once she arrived in the US, but the movie instead relies on Kikuchi’s performance to sell how out of her element she is, which really just helps emphasize that she was out of her element back home.

The other major element that stood out to me is the music, courtesy of the Octopus Project. The soundtrack jumps from soft melodies to loud discordant music and noises, depending on how the lead character is feeling, and I found it quite absorbing. my viewing companion found it rather hard to listen to, especially in the theater, so it’s possible I’m just completely insane.

If I have a complaint, it’s the usual complaint about good movies; There’s not enough of it. In particular the third act and climax feel very slight. I understand that, given the material, the climax was always going to be quiet, but the lead in to the ending featured a fantastic sequence that managed to get us deep into Kumiko’s rapidly fraying psyche and how terrifying it is to be lost in the wilderness with only some well used lighting and editing, and I’d like to have seen more of that.

"Okay the breach is here, so the Kaiju will be coming out of...wait a minute!"

“Okay the breach is here, so the Kaiju will be coming out of…wait a minute!”

The downside to being focused on waiting for one movie for the first couple months of the year is that if that movie disappoints me, it hits all the harder (and I tend to spend the next couple weeks despairingly avoiding the theater…I never said I wasn’t dramatic). Luckily, that’s not the case this time; Kumiko is a fascinatingly unique take on an interesting subject, and easily worth seeing if it’s playing near you. It took nearly 3 full months, but 2105 finally has its first great movie.

Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and if Kumiko was paying more attention, she might have noticed that the majority of Fargo actually takes place in Brainerd.

Pros:

– fantastic and memorable performance from Rinko Kikuchi

– unique subject and interesting approach to it

– great screenplay and direction

Cons:

– ending is abrupt and third act is brief

– soundtrack is pretty odd. I liked it, but you might not

Rating: 4/5

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Elessar

Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile with an obsession with Nicolas Cage and a god complex. His favorite movie is Blade Runner and his least favorite is The Condemned...which probably says more about him than he wants it to.

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Elessar

Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile with an obsession with Nicolas Cage and a god complex. His favorite movie is Blade Runner and his least favorite is The Condemned...which probably says more about him than he wants it to.

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