By Tom Platt. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, the latest film from Goliath director/screenwriter David Zellner, begins with a paused frame from the Coen Bros’ instantly recognizable Minnesotan crime saga, Fargo. Following that, it throws a series of words onscreen in unnerving close-up: “This.” Then: “Is a.” Then: “True.” And finally: “Story.” It’s one of only a handful of moments where you get the idea that the director put any thought into expressing the pace of the film.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a 29 year-old office girl living by herself in a small apartment in Tokyo, comes across a copy of the 1996 neo-noir at a time where she is both dissatisfied with her menial job (where her tasks include making tea and running the boss’ dry cleaning) and paralyzed by an unspecified social anxiety that precludes her from doing anything about her humdrum way of life.
Kumiko‘s sparse dialogue (co-written by David and his brother, Nathan) is reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn’s frosty Drive, but it doesn’t convey any of the complicated feelings that usually come with such brevity. Instead, what we’re presented with is a cipher for a protagonist (far more placid than Refn’s leading man Ryan Gosling could ever be), whose driving actions would leave most anyone wanting for empathy. And while Kumiko’s burgeoning interest in finding Fargo‘s fictional sack of money — she watches it buried in snow on her television set — should become a compelling metaphor for her desire to unchain from her conventional life, what happens instead is a plodding exercise in inanity.
The Zellner Brother’s other creations are far more well-defined: Kumiko’s boss, Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube) has a childishness that’s exemplified in how he’s depicted (he rests his head on a desk while futzing around with a large glass paper weight like a kid playing with a giant marble), a telling contrast against Kumiko’s apparently puerile demeanor. Everyone else thinks Kumiko is “going crazy,” but Zellner is quick to point out that everyone’s prone to immaturity. Their dynamic deepens Kumiko’s motivations a bit with that glass marble, too: Sakagami holds it delicately as he admonishes his subordinate, almost as if he holds her future in his hands.
However, those quirky motivations become unfathomable before long — we’re never privy to what her plans are once she comes to the States, and she jettisons her purportedly beloved VHS for a more user-friendly DVD halfway through the film. Whatever Kumiko is holding onto is far more abstract than we’re initially led to believe, and Zellner leaves us mostly in the dark. David and Nathan (who are both characters in the movie, it should be noted) want to draw comparisons to Kumiko and the rather dimwitted citizens of the Coen Bros’ rural dramedy, but those comparisons are not as favorable as the filmmakers would probably prefer them to be.
There are moments that help get the Zellners’ ideas across more ably, sequences that inform us that Kumiko’s journey is definitely more metaphorical, and therefore, more enjoyable: Kumiko has a coffee shop staredown with a little girl as the sound of steaming froth takes on a subtext all on its own, and Kumiko’s pet bunny is offered the freedom that Kumiko so desperately wants, but it just sits in the snow and twitches its nose. Just as Kumiko has wasted her free life living all on her own in Tokyo, this rabbit is wasting what may be its only real chance at freedom.
Zellner frames these few precious moments in beautiful compositions and bolsters them with a great soundtrack. However, these positives run alongside endless jaunts of dead air and are carried by a blank slate of a character who lacks any discernible passion. We constantly ask why Kumiko would embark on such a ridiculous journey in order to change her life, but the film only wants to respond, “just because.”