Words: Brody Rossiter
INTO THE WOODS
Through a break in a canopy of lustrous green foliage we witness a young woman trudging across a length of sodden grey sand. Waves break and lap upon the seashore, erasing her heavy footsteps, while her bright red sweatshirt provides a sharp contrast as it bobs toward an unknown destination. In her hand she carries a cloth map, a seagull soars and the sun casts a warm shadow across her soft features framed with unkempt black hair. We reach a cove plagued by ancient roots; perhaps veins leading to the heart of a fathomless cave through an uninviting rectangular entranceway. A torch is lit and the choral score adopts a decidedly menacing tone. Suddenly, a startling discovery is made.
There’s still a feeling of otherworldliness present within Japan, a sense of unspoilt discovery despite it being a land which is so heavily augmented with modern technologies and fantastical whimsy. Whether it’s a pink, furry anime creation or freshly oiled samurai sword, everything feels like an unknown artifact or prize concealed amongst the surreal constructs of daily life – so where better to go on a treasure hunt? Well, the frozen ground of Minnesota.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an “office lady”. She ferries suits to the dry cleaners and hides in the communal kitchen while her colleagues discuss beauty regimes. Her mother and manager question why she hasn’t progressed professionally, why she isn’t currently dating, and why she is so distant and disconnected from those around her. Her response: “We all have our own path.” For unknown reasons she has convinced herself that the monetary treasures of an American major motion picture, The Coen Brothers’ Fargo to be exact, are in fact hidden where Steve Buscemi left them within the bleak narrative. Kumiko, growing more and disillusioned decides to finally embark upon the hunt she has painstakingly planned by pouring over VHS tapes and crafting cloth maps. She becomes a conquistador, fleeing Tokyo’s stranglehold to greet the new world of Minnesota and the riches she believes it holds.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is an astoundingly attractive film. Its passageways of soft focus still and tracking shots, juxtaposing the hustle of cross-country travel with the bustle of inner-city living, are painterly reminders of Japan’s stark diversity in both landscapes and culture. As with much Asian cinema, and specifically Tokyo-centric pictures, heritage and hyper-modernity are presented in a state of harmony with one another. Glossy surfaces of brushed steel and polished glass dissect heavily populated environments, while crowds cram into elevators adorned with traditional art – people are forever moving closer and further away like magnets bouncing back and forth.
The constant motion of life, and the loneliness which rides alongside it, is in itself now a tradition of Japanese cinema; the themes of isolation are ironically inescapable. And despite the fact that the directorial duo of David and Nathan Zellner, commonly known as The Zellner Bros, are natives of the wide open spaces of Colorado, they become fluent in this melancholic dialect of filmmaking, primarily through placing stringent emphasis upon their leading lady, Kumiko, and the potent inherent sadness which stalks her movements.
Upon reaching the American Midwest, Kumiko’s journey becomes increasingly frustrated and lost in translation, and yet she forges on despite of the unknown dangers and inarticulacy with which she must now contend. Suddenly everything feels still and motionless, bogged down by both those who care little for this mysterious foreign traveller, and those striving to help. The camera becomes locked inside dingy wood panelled motels and inauthentic Chinese restaurants as warm lights in the distance offer a small, pixelated blossom of hope.
The ethereal culture clash of, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’s narrative is often staggering in both its execution and stylistic depth, but that potent sadness grows stronger and stronger until it ultimately both shapes and constricts the narrative. While such emotion places the viewer firmly by Kumiko’s side – perhaps we’re her only true confidants – allowing us to empathise with her plight, a plight which very well may be derived from mental illness, it creates an increasingly inhospitable place to remain, as darkness consumes those fading beacons of light. However, If you can overcome this turmoil, you will discover a contemporary fable that is both endlessly beautiful and ceaselessly poignant, exhibiting that despite their many influences, the Zellner Brothers have managed to unearth their own unique piece of folklore, that whether through a hushed whisper or a tearful cry, deserves to be spread far and wide.
FIW RATING: 4.5/5
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is in cinemas from February 20th.