Ambient, mournful ,and starring a beautiful performance by Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter directed by David Zellner would have made a damn near perfect short-film. Instead, at nearly two hours long, the film has a wonderful opening shot, a magnificent last third of a film but a middle that seems largely superfluous.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the overlong story. It’s a technical goldmine with the aforementioned Kikuchi anchoring the film.
Kumiko is depressed–that much is clear from the very first glimpse of her face we get. We’re introduced to the character and the story as a purposeful outsider, following her trek to a buried Fargo VHS from wide shots or from an over the shoulder shot point of view, something that will continue through much of the story. Kumiko has decided that it is her destiny to find the fictional treasure buried in Fargo and that once she does she will find true happiness. We follow her lonely odyssey from Tokyo, Japan to Minneapolis, Minnesota in the same tunnel vision that she’s suffering from. Based on an urban legend about a woman found looking for the treasure there was a freedom of how to explore this story and Zellner’s meditative choice is well suited for the story at hand.
And what a dark story. So dark that the vibrancy of the film and the work done by the cinematographer David Porter is crucial to the movies reception. Kumiko’s red sweatshirt that she wears like a shield pops out against the more drab and world weary settings she finds herself in and the shots that Porter gets of the endless landscapes are masterful. It’s Porters eye matched with Zellner’s vision that allows for some of the strongest moments in the film. Whether it’s an up close and personal moment where Kumiko is with her rabbit, Bunzo, at a train station and the deep seated loneliness is brought to the forefront (think the genius shot of the cat looking outside the train window in Inside Llewyn Davis) or a shot that broadcasts the scope of her wanderings such as her walking along a highway, Porter and Zellner find compositions that play artistically. With very little dialogue for most of the films run there has to be more beyond what’s being said and, most importantly, what’s not being said has to be clear and purposeful. We need to know what Kumiko is feeling without her every fully expressing it.
Kikuchi. luckily, supplies those answers with an expressively drawn face. Despite much of the film being stuck in a perpetual frown, Kikuchi makes Kumiko’s sadness deeply felt. Her isolation from her family and co-workers, her desperation to find this treasure to have a purpose or any glimpse of hope that she experiences all reads on her face. It’s a minimalist performance masking an enormity of pain which is apparent in her body language. Her physicality as Kumiko bears the weight of the world.
The MVP without question though is the score done by The Octopus Project. Acting as an omnipresent guide throughout the journey both physical and emotional the music is another way in which we’re allowed a view of the turmoil Kumiko is experiencing. From the melancholy notes played at the beginning, to the claustrophobic notes it plays when Kumiko is feeling anxious or out of control or when the music turns bombastic, making the theater shake, the music is a part of the story. It’s one of the most exciting usages of the a score in recent memory, one in which it becomes more vocal and more of a storytelling tool than the actual dialogue.
Darkly humorous at times and deeply somber at others, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is an ambitious film that feels no need to over tell their chosen story. Instead, they rely on the audience themselves to read into the imagery and performance and sounds and decipher what it’s all about, if anything at all. At nearly two hours it might have overextended it’s stay for storytelling purposes, but very little time ever felt wasted.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is out in a limited release now.