Rinko Kikuchi is a criminally under-used actress. She’s been a favorite of mine since the first time I saw her in Babel, a film with its fair share of problems, but her emotionally raw performance is not one of them. But what really got my attention was her role in Brothers Bloom, as the con men’s Girl Friday/Q/Muscle. Kikuchi approached the part like a silent comedian interpreting a Looney Tunes character, floating untouchably along on a cosmic current. Range can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, but Kikuchi has an ability to suit her persona to the film she’s in that’s almost uncanny, and the fact that so few Western productions have been able to utilize her talents is dispiriting.
Say what you will about it but Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter fully appreciates Kikuchi’s talents. She’s so central to Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter that it is practically a one woman show. She’s in nearly every shot of the film and makes the most of the rare opportunity with a careful, deeply felt performance. Which is a good thing because that’s pretty much all the film has going for it.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is the kind of indie film that convinces people that they hate indie films. A nightmarish blend of twee whimsy, strained artfulness and miserableism with some hearty doses of condescension (“Look the American sheriff took her to a Chinese restaurant to look for a translator! Because he doesn’t know where Tokyo is! It’s funny because we think he’s fucking stupid!”). Kumiko tells the story of a young Japanese woman who becomes convinced that the money Steve Buscemi hides in Fargo is real. She abandons her horrible job and unfeeling family to go to Minnesota and die in the snow. That’s about it.
It’s not initially apparent that things are going to go off of the rails. Kikuchi’s performance has conviction, and director David Zellner is not without talent. He knows how to compose a shot, often framing Kikuchi in full bodied medium wide shots, emphasizing her omnipresent awkwardness in whatever environment she happens to be in. Despite what the plot description might suggest, Kumiko isn’t exactly a fish out of water film because for Kumiko, every place is out of water. Couple this with a score by The Octopus Project that puts the finishing veneer on a surprisingly menacing and aggressive soundscape, and it’s easy to fool yourself for the first thirty minutes or so that you’re watching an agreeable enough attempt at aping Morvern Callar.
But then the pummeling inertia really kicks in. I’m hardly Robert McKee, but even if you’re looking to make a character study about personal disintegration, there has to be something for it to disintegrate from. Zellner has primarily made shorts up to this point, and while simply portraying a state of being might be acceptable in a 15 minute film, it’s harder to take over 105. Kumiko is a movie that can’t be bothered to go from A to B. Any visible sign of linear progression might be taken as a betrayal of principles. So instead we get a series of artfully composed shots that lead to a conclusion that would be insulting if it wasn’t so blatantly telegraphed. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter seeks to be a portrait of a lost soul. Instead it feels an awful lot like a portrait of a couple lost filmmakers.