Sunday, November 23, 2014

SDFF 37 Review: The Zellner Brothers craft a singular, fascinating yarn in "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"

As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports and individual reviews. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.

Films are strange things. The ‘object’ is merely a series of images projected through light, and yet, once a film is first shown to an audience, it has the potential to take on a life so much larger than its simple base form. The phenomenological distance between what a film ‘is’ and the effect a film ‘has’ is at once fascinating and baffling to me, and the more I study the medium, the more complex, confusing, and amazing it becomes. A film can leave us with an impossibly vast array of emotional and intellectual reactions, ranging from sheer indifference to fiery passion. We can be transfixed by the imagery, transported by the setting, and enraptured by the story, all to extents so extreme that reality and fantasy can begin to blur. We can literally fall in love with characters, devoting large swaths of time to watching and rewatching an on-screen figure’s exploits, or following them through subsequent films. A movie and all its component parts can uplift us on a bad day, bring us down on a good day, and broaden our horizons more than should be possible by simply sitting in a darkened room and looking at a screen. For what a film actually ‘is,’ the sway movies can hold over our lives is extraordinary. There is something beautiful about that, a wonder inherent in the power of cinema that drives many of us to devote our lives to studying it. Yet cinema’s power is so immense and unknowable that there is also something equally frightening about it, a terror that comes from the possibility of losing oneself in the fantasy. In this way, perhaps cinema is inherently sublime, existing at an intoxicating intersection between the wondrous and the terrifying, the immediate and the unknowable, where the only response upon arriving is to follow the sensation further, no matter where it might lead.

David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is about a character lost within this intersection – and, by extension, about all of us who derive pleasure from surrendering to the allure of cinema. The film’s title character, Kumiko, is a 29-year-old office worker in Tokyo, as dissatisfied with life and detached from her surroundings as it is possible to be. As played by Rinko Kikuchi in one of the most fully-realized performances of 2014, Kumiko looks physically uncomfortable merely existing in the world, her frustrated antipathy for nearly everything around her simmering just beneath the surface at all times. Coiled, introverted, and seemingly incapable of making eye contact with another human being, Kumiko looks as if she just wants to shed her skin and flee, leaving all parts of herself and her setting behind. The only time she seems content to exist on this earth, let alone feel comfortable, is when she is alone in her apartment at night, sitting right up close to the TV and watching an old, battered VHS tape of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo. 

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That tape leads Kumiko to go on an incredible, treacherous, and seemingly insane journey, travelling to Minnesota in the dead of winter, with only a hoodie for warmth, on an insatiable quest to find the briefcase full of money Steve Buscemi’s character famously buried along the highway in the snow. The story might be too outlandish to engage with were it not for two things: First, that the Zellner Brothers were inspired by the real-life story of a young Japanese woman who travelled from Tokyo to Minnesota, apparently on a quest to find the Fargo treasure (and fooled by the film’s ironic ‘true story’ intro), only to get lost and freeze to death in the icy tundra (the Fargo connection has since been debunked, as David Zellner explained in the post-screening Q&A).

Second, and much more importantly, when Kumiko sits in front of her television, compulsively watching the same scenes over and over again and filling a notebook with observations, those in the audience cannot help but identify with her. The strange, indescribable power a film can hold over us; the possessiveness we develop towards a particular film when our love for or fascination with it grows intense; the way a movie can offer us an escape from that which vexes us in reality, as if, in our darkest periods, the only place we can turn to that makes sense, and which understands us in return, is the film that has caught our attention. All are sensations the cinephile can identify with, and all of them are encapsulated in those moments Kumiko stares at her television, lost in the cinematic fantasy she prefers to her unfulfilling reality. It would be easy to label Kumiko’s path as ‘extreme,’ her unyielding devotion to Fargo the product of a deranged (and therefore non-relatable) mind, but the truth is, were I as lonely, frustrated, and damaged as Kumiko is, I probably would have adventured off to Scotland sometime during my adolescent years in search of Hogwarts – and I wouldn’t have even needed the “This is a True Story” moniker for justification. Those avid filmgoers who cannot confess to a similar repressed urge are probably lying, for there is an essential truth to the obsession Kumiko lives out over the course of this film – and that is precisely what makes her story so rich, fascinating, and profound.

The tonal tightrope the Zellner Brothers walk in this film is simply extraordinary. Resisting the temptation to make the picture a farce at Kumiko’s expense, or to swing too far in the other direction and tell a story of maudlin sentimentality – mistakes many filmmakers would have succumbed to, and extremes David, in the Q&A, said they consciously avoided – Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter blends rich pathos, deeply-felt empathy, dry humor, and playful expressionism to craft a film of emotional multitudes. We are allowed to laugh at the absurdities of Kumiko’s adventure, and at all the colorful characters she meets along the way, but never at Kumiko’s feelings; those are taken seriously, and approached with insight, and as she goes through cycles of anger, depression, elation, grief, and confusion, we feel those sensations in tandem. There are three standout scenes in the film in which Kumiko calls or is called by her disapproving mother, and each is an emotional powerhouse and turning-point; every time she gets on that phone, she seems to be one declaration of maternal affection away from hanging up her Fargo quest and coming back to reality. That this absolution never comes ultimately prompts tears, for both Kumiko and the viewer. Yet these scenes exist alongside moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, in which Kumiko tries to steal an atlas from her local library, or encounters an evangelist upon arriving in Minnesota, or gets help from well-meaning Americans incapable of distinguishing different Asian cultures. Sometimes, the humor and pathos blend so seamlessly – as in the sequence where Kumiko, just before her departure for Minnesota, tries to let her pet rabbit Bunzo free – that laughter and tears flow forth together.

The film distinguishes itself stylistically as well, being neither the Coen Brothers homage it could so easily have been, nor the heightened surrealist fantasy piece many filmmakers, caught up in the eccentricity of the story, might have turned towards. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is resolutely and completely its own creation, with its own calm, composed sense of cinematography and pace, and its own intensely sensory way of expressing emotional turmoil and delusion amidst a largely realistic backdrop. The film was shot on location in Tokyo and Minnesota, using local crews and actors, and the immersion within both locations is absolute; the Zellners wait the exact right amount of time before putting Kumiko on the plane to Minnesota, letting the details of her home life linger and simmer long enough to make the film’s second half feel like a genuine, well-earned pay-off; and it ends with a mixture of stark reality and feverish imagination that perfectly encapsulates the film’s complex emotional blend. The music, by The Octopus Project, expertly underlines the intensity of many key moments, and the sound design, visuals, and editing are all exemplary technical achievements. Kumiko is a spectacularly realized film, and it achieves it all entirely on its own terms.

Most crucially, though, Rinko Kikuchi delivers next-level work in the title role; there are few performances I have seen all year more impressive or impactful than this one. Kikuchi has long been a promising, engaging talent, and here, her gift for expressing volumes with minimal, meaningful physicality is given its best showcase to date. She inhabits the character completely, and commands the screen wholly, and is so raw and vulnerable in this extreme, challenging part that it is easy to question and reinterpret the base assumption the entire narrative is built upon.

As played by Kikuchi, I do not think reducing Kumiko’s actions to mere derangement tells the whole story; that her actions are motivated by an actual belief in the Coens’ ironic invocation of the term ‘truth’ seems too simple for a character this complex. I wonder – especially early on, in those many slow, lingering moments in Tokyo, when Kumiko is at or near her lowest point and seems ready to run away at any second, but for some reason refrains – if she knows, deep down, that Fargo really is ‘just a movie.’ I suspect she may be conscious, on one level or another, that it is less the film itself than what she brings to it that makes Fargo such a lifeline for her. Maybe she has willingly given herself over to the delusion just to save herself the pain of grappling with reality. Those phone calls with her mother are telling; she keeps talking to her mother, just wanting some kind of acceptance, or to see if her mother will share in her excitement about the ‘treasure.’ Yet all she gets are reprimands, commands to go find a husband or come live back at home, to restrict herself even further within the tight social template that binds and traumatizes her. And under those kinds of circumstances, is it so hard to just let oneself go, to surrender oneself to a fantasy one is enraptured by? Is it truly ‘crazy’ for Kumiko to look at Fargo, and all the things about it that make her feel alive, and choose that ‘reality’ to the one she is living in? Perhaps the most fundamental and provocative question here is whether or not Kumiko’s ‘choice’ is any worse than facing the real world. Whatever mishaps and tragedies befall her along the way, Kumiko seems to find some level of palpable fulfillment on this journey. Is she out of her mind, or is it the rest of us who are wrong?

Or maybe there is no difference between Kumiko and the rest of us. Perhaps this a process each of us engage in, every day, whenever we sit down and submit ourselves to the fantasy of a motion picture. Maybe Kumiko is actually a little farther ahead of us in deciphering the experiential mysteries of cinema.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack. 

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