Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 29, 2015 6:37 am 
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Doomed journey into a fantasy

This depicts an aging Japanese "Office Lady." She is 29. OL's are expected to move up or get married by 25. They're all cute, appearance-obsessed (one boasts of just having had her eyelashes "permed"), wear tidy uniforms. Kumiko (played by Babel Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi), is frumpy, her hair a mess, is not dating anyone, and is exploited as a personal errand-girl by her boss (Nobuyuki Katsube).

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is dreary movie that becomes obsessive and dogged. It celebrates delusion and stupidity. If the filmmaking team behind it, the brothers David and Nathan Zellner, with a number of shorts and a handful of features behind them, are "outside-indie" as Scott Foundas says in his Variety review, then indeed they have perhaps pulled off something of a coup here and gained some wider critical acceptance. Some art house audience members may buy in as well (it has been invited to many film festivals). But despite skillful shooting in Japan (and in Japanese) in the first half, and nice work on locations, and a fine eye shown by cinematographer Sean Porter, I have to side wholeheartedly with Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian: this movie is "tiresome and twee." It also encourages misguided sympathy -- even admiration -- for a young woman, the titular Kumiko, who's not worthy of it. She is very depressed and probably crazy, or simply very stupid. She is also opaque.

This is a movie based on a real event, incorporating a legend that grew up about that event. A young Japanese woman was found dead in the snow in North Dakota, an apparent suicide. Stories then grew up that rather than a suicide she had been hunting for the buried cache of money in the Coen brothers movie Fargo. Well, Kumiko thinks of herself as an adventurer. At the outset she wanders into a cave outside Tokyo, where she digs up an old, damaged videotape of Fargo. Having no life outside the office and no friends other than her pet rabbit, she watches the tape obsessively every night, while munching her packaged noodle meal, taking notes. She is delusional, thinking the film is a key to real buried treasure. (This is not a philosophical or spiritual quest, by the way: it's pure greed.) Things at work go from bad to worse, and her mother, never seen but spoken to on the phone, is disappointed with her.

When the boss gives Kumiko his company credit card to buy his wife an anniversary present, she leaves her rabbit on a train and flies to Minneapolis, from whence she makes her tragic journey into deepest snowy Fargo, South Dakota, skipping out on motel bills, taxi fares, and would-be helpers along the way. The latter include a sympathetic cop, who appears just as stupid as Kumiko, played by the director. At the end, which I thought would never come and is doubtless also her end, in what must be a hypothermal hallucination Kumiko imagines she has found the wire fence and red stick of the Coen brothers movie, and digs up the briefcase filled with hundred-dollar bills. Or, at least, thinks she does, a delusion the film shares with us as if it were real.

Foundas notes that the Zellner brothers (Nathan co-scripted) got to work with a bigger budget than before here and handle two crews and Japanese and wintry Minnesota and Dakota locations well. (They also got Alexander Payne of The Descendants, Nebraska, etc., as one of the producers.) The early part could very well pass for a Japanese film. Sean Porter and the production designers and location finders do equally well with trashy or busy scenes and the vast clean whiteout of snowy landscape. But these accomplishments and a determined performance by Rinko Kikuchi are not enough to make one care about this woman and her fool's errand.

Kumiko, 105 mins., debuted at Sundance 2014, also Berlin and SXSW and three dozen other festivals. It opened in the UK and Ireland 20 February 2015, and the US 18 March; northern California opening 3 April.

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