Based on an urban legend surrounding the death of a Japanese office girl, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter introduces us to its titular character as she lopes endearingly along a shoreline toward a cove where she makes a discovery. A grimy VHS tape of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo is taken back to Kumiko’s confining apartment, providing her with some much-needed escapism from her oppressive life. Her co-workers giggle and chatter about eyelash perms while her mother becomes increasingly pushy about her daughter’s marital status. Kumiko’s boss, too is a hateful sort; a despondent, slothful man, who is as bored of ordering her around as she is of being ordered.
We watch Kumiko retreat from this drollery into her lonesome home where she feeds her rabbit Bunzo and studiously contemplates the VHS of Fargo. Becoming obsessed with the contents of the briefcase depicted in the film, she begins to hand-stitch calculatedly imprecise “maps” of the buried treasure.
The second act of the film, introduced as “The New World” is intriguing as we follow Kumiko across the Pacific on the expense of her boss’ company credit card in search for the “legendary treasure”. We see the strange world of the airport and its oddball tourist information officers through Kumiko’s eyes as the language barrier is made apparent and she struggles to find her way. It is at this point that the duplicitous nature of the film begins to really show itself and I so desperately wanted not to laugh at Kumiko’s belief that she is “like a Spanish conquistador”, because her strife, however ridiculous, is rendered in such painfully real quality by the outstanding cinematography of the Zellners.
The Octopus Project’s award winning score also ensures that the viewer remains embroiled in Kumiko’s fraught conquest for riches; it swirls and buzzes around the head, managing to intimidate and soothe at the same time, in a style that I can only describe as “Native American in a haunted elevator at a fairground”. In parts we are rewarded with woozy songs that undulate in time to the blizzards we follow Kumiko through.
But it is ultimately Rinko Kikuchi’s performance that commands our attention; she plays Kumiko’s downcast, vacant gaze to great effect; imploring us to love her despite her naivety. Kikuchi flips seamlessly from morose to angsty in seconds in one memorable scene in which she is informed of the fictitious nature of the treasure, and her doe-eyed childishness is both charming and laughable throughout.
I cannot emphasise how much I enjoyed this film; the often Wes Anderson-esque way in which the scenery seems to operate mechanically around the characters is delightful fun (a particular favourite shot being the appearance of Kumiko from beneath a drift of snow). The beautiful soft focus the Zellners paint Kumiko’s world with is arresting; its fuzziness seeks not to impede the viewer’s vision, but to smear it and morph the imagery into a hazy cinematic version of a Turner painting.
I was simultaneously heartbroken and tickled by the convincing and also hilarious performance that the supporting cast members deliver; the scripting is minimal, allowing their expressions to squeeze laughs from the audience as they grimace and frown away at the uncomfortably ill-informed exploits of Kumiko. I’m certain that, while you may feel a little bemused and slightly guilty in some parts, you will hugely this enjoy this stunning, heart-rending triumph when it opens at Duke’s, Brighton on Friday 20th Feb.
Tickets are available from the Duke’s @ Komedia website.
By Adam Morrison