Sunday, September 21, 2014

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is an unsuccessful curiosity, a little independently produced movie parasitic upon the Coen brothers, Fargo, and manifestly inferior to that film in all respects.  In the late nineties, a story circulated on the internet that a Japanese woman had misunderstood the facetious opening title in Fargo (everything in this movie is true) and traveled to northern Minnesota in the hope of finding a fictional suitcase full of money shown to be stashed in the snow along a wintry fence-line at the end of that film.  According to the tale, the woman got lost in a blizzard and froze to death.  There are variants of the story:  in some of them, the unfortunate woman is lured to Minnesota by an internet pen-pal with whom she has been conducting an electronic, intercontinental romance.  I recall reading an interview with a Minnesota State Trooper who had encountered the woman -- the officer denied that the treasure in the Coen brothers' movie was the woman's primary motivation, although she had mentioned it.  If I recall the interview correctly, the cop didn't know exactly why the woman had come to northern Minnesota and was never able to ascertain her objectives -- he indicated that the treasure in the film was not the "real story," hinted darkly about something more sinister, but didn't elaborate.  Of course, it is possible that there is no real story at all, that the woman never existed, or that the relationship between the woman's apparent suicide and the Coen brothers' Fargo is completely fictional; certainly, there is a kind of poetic justice in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter goofing on motifs from Fargo and deriving its cachet from the idea that the movie represents actual events.  The opening title in Fargo, shown repeatedly in Kumiko, says that the "All names have been changed to protect the innocent living survivors...(while) all events are portrayed exactly as they happened to honor the dead" -- presumably everything in Kumiko is similarly fictional.  Although the film invokes Fargo and repeatedly samples that movie's scene in which a dying villain buries the cash-filled valise in the snow, Kumiko is far more influenced by Werner Herzog's work.  Kumiko is an isolated loner, apparently mentally ill, with no real friends -- she is mute throughout most of the movie, a melancholy amalgam of Bruno S. in Stroszek and Aguirre.  She fancies herself a conquistador and, at one moment in the film, she is emboldened to action by seeing a plaster bust of a Spanish conquistador  incongruously displayed in the home where she has taken refuge -- a title announces her arrival in Minnesota with the words "The New World."  The movie has a dreamy languid soundtrack that sounds like Herzog's Popol Vuh, a drone that sometimes loudens to fortissimo chords as if underlying a horror movie that the film makers' haven't bothered to produce.  At one point, the dying Kumiko rides a chairlift at a deserted ski hill, a scene very similar to the morose denouement of Stroszek in which the doomed Bruno S. (playing the titular character) goes around and around on a chairlift while a chicken dances frantically in a penny-arcade.  These allusions point to a problem with Kumiko -- both the Coen brothers and Werner Herzog have highly idiosyncratic styles easily imitated but almost impossible to successfully implement over the course of a feature film.  The Coen brothers brand of snarky, magical realism depends on an exceptionally acute eye for actual reality -- the grotesque characters in their films are always theoretically possible:  the Coen's magical realism is like Fellini's, that is satirical caricature pushed past mockery into the realm of startled admiration.  Herzog's bizarre dreamers wandering imaginary landscapes originate in the German director's authentically obsessive personality as well as his war-time experiences of surrealist things happening that "made no sense at all" (to quote Little Dieter needs to Fly).  The Zellner brothers, the Texas-based directors of Kumiko, don't seem to be genuinely obsessed -- rather, on the evidence of this film, they are nice boys from a liberal city in Texas with an attitude of faintly amused, kindly condescension to the eccentrics portrayed in their film.  The Coen brothers' Midwestern, as well as their Jewish films, are often denounced by some Midwesterners and many Jews for their cruelty and their, apparent, indifference to the ugliness of the people that they show -- but as a Midwesterner I can vouch for the uncanny, if heightened, accuracy of the things that they depict.  (And I recall attending a screening of the Coen brothers' most Jewish film, A Serious Man, with an entirely Jewish audience -- the people watching the picture related to the figures on the screen as if they were disreputable, but beloved, relatives.)  By contrast, Kumiko is full of patronizing sequences that demonstrate complete ignorance of the upper Midwest -- shop clerks in convenience stores don't smoke cigarettes, State Troopers know the difference between Chinese and Japanese people, there aren't any grotesque religious fanatics proselytizing people at the Twin Cities International Airport, the owner Indian owners of small-town motels don't show themselves to their customers dressed in grubby tee-shirts -- just about every scene intended to dramatize the alien landscape of the upper Midwest rings false.  (Similarly, the first third of the film set in Tokyo is a dour collection of clich├ęs -- Kumiko has a mother who hectors her by telephone for not being married or dating; her boss is abusive and, yet, when he seems poised to fire her, and has even introduced Kumiko to her replacement, he instead gives her the company credit card, a card that she misappropriates to finance her ill-conceived trip to Minnesota.  None of the scenes set in Japan make much sense -- it's as if the film makers conceive of Japan as so alien and incomprehensible that they don't even try to understand its people or their institutions.  (Why would Kumiko try to steal an atlas from a Japanese public library -- and do such libraries really employ hulking security guards who seem like underemployed sumo wrestlers?)  There are some fine things in the film:  a series of wintry landscapes at the end of the film are beautifully filmed and some business involving a fat, cheerful-looking rabbit is effectively staged and has a poignant impact.  Unfortunately, the handsome rabbit does more acting (and is more engaging) than Kumiko -- she does nothing but mope throughout the whole film and, ultimately, is so thoroughly obtuse and annoying that we are not saddened by her doom.  (Compare this film to Agnes Varda's shattering Vagabond, a picture that the movie also resembles -- the doomed heroine in Vagabond, who freezes to death in a ditch, is ferociously alive:  her mental illness is not romanticized and Varda doesn't hesitate to show her doing awful things, confident, nonetheless, that we will sympathize with her to the very end.  Kumiko is merely cute and hapless -- the film reaches its nadir when she kisses the baffled cop on the lips, a gesture that makes no sense at all in the context of the movie.)  Perhaps, I would have liked the film better if I had seen it in more congenial surroundings than the crowded Walker Art Center theater.  A horde of Minneapolis pseudo-intellectuals can destroy almost any movie with their glib, dull-witted and theatrically ostentatious reactions.  The audience seemed to think that the film was a rip roaring comedy, a kind of Adam Sandler film for hipsters and they laughed uproariously at all the wrong times.  Furthermore, the people in the theater apparently believe that rural Minnesotans are actually as dimwitted and clueless as the rubes in the film -- in fact, a town like Austin, where I live, is crowded with immigrants and far more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the suburban white enclaves from which the WAC audience came.

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