*** (out of five)
The Zellner Brothers’ idiosyncratic festival darling Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is certainly original and, for the first half at least, deeply compelling. Its complementary use of location, cinematography and sound (original music by The Octopus Project, a very hip Austin ensemble) is spectacular; if sheer visual and aural ravishment is your bag – and enough to get you through a full feature film – then this one’s for you, and essential to see on the big screen.
If story is your thing, the film will be far less successful, and if character motivation is your jam, it could be deeply frustrating. Kumiko (Rinko Kukuchi, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Babel in 2007) is a spectacularly beautiful, and spectacularly troubled, “office lady” living on her own (well, with a pet rabbit) in Tokyo. At 29, she’s well past the normal age to either have found a husband or advanced her career, but the reasons for this are plain for anyone to see: Kumiko is severely clinically depressed or severely suffering of some other, even worse mental ailment, and it has rendered her incompetent both professionally and socially. The fact that she remembers to feed her rabbit is about her greatest achievement in daily life.
Kumiko’s illness manifests itself with an obsession with the suitcase full of money buried in the Cohen Brothers’ movie Fargo. If you remember, that film starts with a declaration that the entire story is true; it’s one of the great little jokes of modern cinema, given the outrageousness of the story, but Kumiko believes it, and her mission in life – indeed, what she calls her “destiny” – becomes to go to Fargo, in far north – and freezing cold – Minnesota – and find the “treasure”.
The first half of the film is set in Tokyo and is fascinating. It’s an intriguing portrait of Japanese daily life, office culture, and Kumiko herself is an intriguing character – for that section of the film. Unfortunately, once Kumiko gets to the United States, the film stalls and the inherent plot and character problems exponentially grow. Kumiko’s illness is undiagnosed and dramatically undefined, and her character becomes more and more of a challenge on every level of viewership, particularly now that she’s in an environment that doesn’t speak her language. Whereas the first half of the film has a dramatic thrust, this second section feels aimless – whole sequences could easily have been lost in the editing room, and the film would have been better for it. As it is, it’s too long at an hour forty-five.
The music is gorgeous, but its very much the language of horror, and the film has a creepy, horrific texture. It’s a very strange tone. There’s no humour and, indeed, it’s all very melancholic bordering on the truly tragic. Don’t buy into concepts of “quirky” or “wacky” if that’s what you’re getting from the trailers; the Zellner Brothers may have been inspired by the Cohen Brothers, but their tone is completely different. There are no laughs in this bleak landscape, just serious, relentless loneliness.