Inspired by the urban legend surrounding the real life suicide of Tokyo office worker Takako Konishi (go to Google…), David Zellner’s bizarre, enigmatic, and totally masterful oddity Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is easily one of the most spellbinding films of the year, a motion picture almost impossible to classify, and the very definition of a film where the less you know about it the better off you’ll be when you see it. This was my first Zellner Brothers experience and it won’t be the last; I’m stocking up my Netflix queue with whatever I can get my hands on, and I’ve discovered some funny short films online (Sasquatch Birth Journal #2 is priceless!) which seem to indicate a general level of cinematic idiocy that I can really get behind. I love it when a movie takes me totally by surprise, and when a filmmaker confidently mixes a variety of tones with the express goal of creating something wholly unique and startling. That’s what this film is – wildly original, deeply stylish, mentally stirring, and at times, thematically troubling when it isn’t being irreverently funny. And it’s yet another small movie from this year that trounces the big-budget competition; I’m finding it harder and harder to come up with any solid reasons to see whatever piece of uninspired nonsense that the studio system is hurling my way.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which was co-written by David Zellner and his talented brother Nathan, stars the fascinating actress Rinko Kikuchi as a mentally ill Japanese office worker, “still” unmarried at 29 (much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother), who discovers a degraded VHS copy of Joel and Ethan Coen’s celebrated film Fargo. The narrative details, with much humor, painful sadness, and creepy unpredictability, how she misinterprets the film for real life, leading her on an asinine and quixotic quest to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character had buried out in that snowy field near that wire fence before he got fed to the wood chipper. The film is all about Kumiko’s quest and the interesting people she meets along the way (a segment with a helpful cop played by David Zellner himself and some scenes with a widowed woman are particularly strong and affecting), and the way the Zellners have framed their story leaves little doubt in the viewer’s head that they’re dealing with a lead character who isn’t thinking clearly. And what’s more, the subtle ways that the filmmakers fill you in on this fact are awesome to notice and discover. The script is limited with its dialogue, as the Zellners prefer to tell their story with a focus on allowing their indelible images to propel to narrative forward, resulting in a work that feels dreamy and one that’s constantly challenging reality.
The film has an amazing visual look, with the 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography by Sean Porter always putting something interesting in the frame, with Kumiko’s red hoodie cutting across the blown-out white expanses of the Minnesota winter landscape in extremely memorable fashion. Melba Jodorowsky’s fluid editing allows the film to move along at a brisk pace without ever feeling rushed, and the eclectic and offbeat musical score by The Octopus Project never leaves any doubt that you’re watching something willfully absurd yet sincerely heartfelt. The film is essentially about loneliness and isolation, and how one woman is committed to doing SOMETHING with her life, regardless if that something is rational or not. The Zellners have made an absurdist film to a certain degree, and yet, there’s emotional impact because of Kikuchi’s mesmerizing portrayal of a woman who has lost all sense of normalcy, desperate for this one thing to come to fruition. You never know where this movie is going, it’s impossible to guess how it will end, and I absolutely LOVED the final section, which will likely frustrate and annoy those who need everything spelled out for them in order to be satisfied with a movie. I’ve never seen anything that remotely comes close to resembling this bizarre and completely transfixing film, and it’s yet another indication of how there are some truly great movies out there to be seen if you’re willing to look a bit harder at all of the available selections.