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Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

by on July 15, 2014
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Kumiko the Treasure Hunter - inside

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I often ruminate on the divide in aesthetic tastes between film critics and regular moviegoers. As a general rule, if you look at aggregate ratings given by professional reviewers and those by ticket-buyers, the latter rate movies higher. I think the explanation is easy: Regular folks don’t see movies as often, so doing so feels like a special occasion that they’re enthusiastic about, and that translates into a predisposition to like what they see. After all, they chose it.

Also, because critics are seeing a lot of flicks, it’s hard to avoid a dread feeling of sameness. So reviewers sitting through the third coming-of-age drama or romantic comedy this month are apt to cast a more baleful eye.

On the flip side are so-called “art films” that critics will enthusiastically embrace, but about which audiences — outside of the rarefied circuit of elite film festivals and industry insiders — are considerably less amorous. Again, I don’t think the answer is mysterious: These types of films eschew or challenge conventional stories and narrative devices of which critics have grown tired.

“Different” often translates as “good” for weary critics, even if the totality of the cinematic experience isn’t really all that edifying.

“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is the sort of movie destined to be loved by critics, and not many others. Indeed, I saw one writer who labeled it the best film ever to come out of Sundance.


I am reminded of Yasujirō Ozu’s “Tokyo Story,” both because of the Japanese flavor of the tale and the same sort of narrative momentum … which is to say, not very much. Writer/director David Zellner, who is also one of the principle actors, is more concerned with capturing moments than telling a story.

The movie seems almost resentful about any expectation about storytelling. Scenes will linger on and on, a moment of silence that is supposed to be revealing but ends up stultifying. At some point, I began fantasizing about removing a few dozen frames at a time with the snap of the finger.

The titular character is played by Rinko Kikuchi, whom American audiences may remember from the wonderful “Pacific Rim.” Her character here could not be more different: Kumiko is a wallflower seemingly without any internal mechanisms ticking. She is fixated only upon one thing — the idea that she knows the location of a treasure, and that it is her duty to go find it. Indeed, she feels it already belongs to her, and any impediments between her and obtaining it are to be avoided or overcome.

She bases this on the movie “Fargo,” of which she replays a faded old VHS ad infinitum. You may recall the scene where a bloody Steve Buscemi buries a briefcase full of cash in the snow next to a barbed wire fence, and marks it with an ice scraper. Kumiko, spurred on by title cards that claim the film was based on real events, convinces herself the money is still out there, waiting just for her, two decades later.

This would seem to locate her somewhere in the delusional spectrum. But Kumiko is adamant, and eventually steals her boss’ company credit card to fly to Minneapolis and make her way north to Fargo. She speaks almost no English, has no maps and no certainty about the geographical location of this fence, or even if it actually resides near Fargo. But hers is a tale of faith.

There are a few strangely funny scenes, such as when a helpful deputy (Zellner) picks Kumiko up after she’s been wandering around the frozen streets wrapped only in a comforter she’s liberated from a hotel. He offers to help, but can’t communicate, so he takes her to the local Chinese buffet place because he figures someone there will know her lingo — the difference between Japanese and Mandarin apparently being a little hazy to small-town Minnesotans.

Kumiko’s only real human connection is with her mother, whom she calls at inopportune times so they can have repetitive conversations, mostly about the daughter’s lack of a husband and family.

She works as an Office Lady in Tokyo. I learn that this is a real thing, young winsome girls recruited for pink-collar jobs filing and such. It is understood by employer and employees that there is no real chance for future or promotion, and that the women will quit when they settle down and marry — preferably by 25, as there is always a new crop of OL’s waiting to take their place.

The source of my disconnect from this movie is the inability to relate in any way with Kumiko. Her quest is a ridiculous one, undertaken only by the supremely dim and/or psychologically disturbed. She has a sort of passive/aggressive nastiness about her, failing to look anyone in the eye or provide anything like human interaction. Once her boss discovers what she’s up to, he cancels her credit card, so she ends up walking out on a lot of bills. I felt more sympathy for the stiffed taxi driver than her.

I suppose there’s a case to be made for an interpretation of “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” that’s less literal and more fanciful, a version in which she’s the brave heroine who never gives up in her dreams no matter what anyone else says. The problem with that is not all dreams are created equal, and hers are left wanting. So is the story about her.

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