Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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Panic at the Mythos

Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner

Review written by Robert D. Patrick

The first image that emblazons the screen is that of a woman, wearing a red sweater. The heat radiates like a crimson-hot coal streaking over an unknown shoreline. Imagine a lipstick smudge or a shock of red paint. The figure’s feet putter over wet, malleable sand to some uncharted destination. It’s an erudite image that reverberates like a church’s pipe organ. Director David Zellner’s film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, is laconic and sullen. A broken masthead in the face of a wily gale. Our heroine is monomaniac and crestfallen, an arrangement of naivete and determination. Zellner’s story is a half-erased sonnet. A fading cloud.

And while the levity of the film’s title suggests a sardonic misadventure, the proceedings are more miserable than mordant.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), the title character, is becoming increasingly morose and detached from the texture of her personal and professional life. Dealing with abject criticism from her mother, Kumiko recoils under the stone bed of her small flat. Her boss, a petulant and affluent businessman, has the self-effacing posture of Morla from The Neverending Story. He wears holes on his desk when he’s not slinking against his window. Demands are the monotone orders of the day.

Everything is the same, all dances alone. Kumiko is breaking.

To perforate the murky darkness, our hero becomes obsessed with a water-warped VHS tape of Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen’s mid-nineties masterpiece. Kumiko, steeped in psychological malaise, grits her teeth and begins to fantasize over unearthing the fictional briefcase full of money that is seen in the film. After making a litany of rash concessions, she travels to america in a deteriorated mind-state, searching for the lost treasure seen in the 1996 film. Because of Zellner’s emotionally apocalyptic landscape, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter deliberately wanders in a sort of soupy void. Rinko Kikuchi’s expressions are the lifeline of this movie’s bone-masticating rage. Confused, ornery, hurt, and peering like two discarded rubber balls in a game of jacks, Kikuchi’s eyes present a grim reality, where denial and hopelessness lock horns.

The story, based on a true account of a woman from Japan committing suicide, shortly arriving to the United States, has become muddied by a cat’s cradle of alterations. The reclined hearsay of Kumiko, desperately digging her fingers into the crackling ice of North Dakota for a false treasure, seem to be erected from smoke and mist. The tale told here, through Zellner’s lens, follows the funhouse version, rather than clinging to the coattails of reality.

Although fascinating, there are articles online that present a more moving portrait of this woman’s sad end. This is more of a feature story than a feature film. As it is, Zellner’s opus is a glacial march into the abyss. Languid doesn’t begin to describe the forlorn inertia, the dour sedation. It’s like watching a wet straw wrapper unfold. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – now playing at Landmark’s Ken Theater – is more dead than it is haunting. It’s wet ember. The kind of meditative walkabout that husks your patience after thirty minutes. Some shots are beautiful and absurdly sad, there is no doubt, but this is nothing more than an intermittently intriguing still-life painting.

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Author: Rob Patrick

A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, Rob created Cinema Spartan after he stepped down as the editor of a weekly. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. He has also introduced films with the Pacific Arts Movement. He co-owns two dire wolves, Buckley and Ruffin. At any given time, he can tell you superfluous hockey statistics. He is the chancellor of Tapatio, an advocate of iced tea, and an owner of at least 70 pairs of Vans.

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