This piece was originally published the 30th of April 2014 by The 405. I’ve made a few edits here and there to correct some errors and smooth out a few of the kinks. As with the first part, I had to write the majority of this in a few hours and didn’t have the opportunity to redraft any of it, so what was published was very raw. (The editor uploaded what was given to him as-is). That being said, however, I was actually (and somewhat unusually) quite proud of what I managed to write within those time constraints. Today it reads a bit ‘first-year film studies’, but I was in my first year of my film studies degree when I wrote it, so I suppose that’s not too bad. Also, the Zellner brothers retweeted and complimented this piece, which was the first time something like that happened to me, and that was pretty neat. I haven’t revisited Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter since Sundance London, but I probably should to see if it holds up.
Muddied by VHS static, David and Nathan Zellner’s (Kid-Thing, Goliath) Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens with the same epigram as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1997): “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” Of course, in the same spirit as Fargo, this declaration is clearly facetious. Kumiko isn’t based on events that actually happened, but very loosely derived from the urban legend of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman believed to have died in the North Dakota snow while searching for the suitcase buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. (In reality, Konishi committed suicide; a short documentary about her story, called This is a True Story , was made for Channel 4 called). However, also in the spirit of Fargo, Kumiko really is a true story, just not in the conventional sense.
You see, there’s a common belief that ‘true’ and ‘real’ are interchangeable in cinema, but I’ve never really bought into that. Cinema doesn’t need to represent an objective reality, doesn’t have to follow in Realist traditions, doesn’t require a basis in real events or overtly political themes in order to ring true. Frankly, that’s a load of bullshit (although maddeningly common in the world of academia which I currently inhabit). In my mind, the only criterion for truth in the cinema is emotion. Does the film in question, whether an unassuming genre picture or stuffy classic, actually make you feel something deeply? Does it speak to your soul and make you seem more alive in some way? Does it enthral you? Depress you? Horrify you? Cause you to laugh? Cry? If so, it’s a truthful film. Your reaction has got to come from something, right? It’s an appeal to the emotions that, for whatever reason, feels right to you. Of course, the operative word here is ‘you’ – emotion is obviously an incredibly personal thing that’s influenced by a multitude of factors, so whether a film actually resonates or not is a subjective matter. We all have our own truths.
This, in a sense, is what Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is about: the deep emotional connections we forge with art that people will say are absurd, or will try to deny us because they’re not ‘real’, but are still irrevocably ours even as they drive us to the point of mania. It’s about the conflict between fact and fiction, and how they are forever entwined. It’s also about Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a hopelessly sad office assistant in Tokyo who is obsessed with Fargo. After discovering a busted old VHS copy of the film buried in the sand, she spends much of her free time watching it. Or, rather, scanning through it and dissecting the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a suitcase full of money in an anonymous stretch of land. Why? Well, like a Spanish Conquistador she plans to unearth this treasure – it’s her destiny. It’s a whacky sounding premise to be sure, and you may think her unbearably crazy for thinking that the suitcase was ever there, but do not mistake this for being some twee, happy-clappy, wishy-washy Sundance-baiting road movie. No, this is a strange little film, but one that’s also dripping with the kind of pathos that eludes most films of its ilk.
I mean, when Kumiko’s reality consists of people ignoring her, belittling her, and judging her worth by her lack of husband and children, her retreat into fantasy makes total sense. It’s predicated on an intense feeling of alienation that we can all relate to. But I suppose it’s more than a than a simple retreat: Kumiko exists in a state of complete solitude that’s beautifully represented by Sean Porter’s placid cinematography, which, especially in the first half, marginalises her in the frame and confines her within the inflexible geometry of the mise-en-scene. The camera is rarely given any freedom, either tightly focusing on Kikuchi or moving rigidly. This, above anything, articulates why powerful emotional connections such as Kimiko’s with Fargo are forged: when the world disregards her and seems so static and bleak, the light of the TV seems otherworldly in her dank little apartment, like the only vital thing in existence. Fargo gives her the one thing that her reality denies her: something to aspire to, a purpose. Whether it’s real or not is entirely beside the point.
But her situation doesn’t miraculously change when she’s eventually compelled to leave for Minnesota. Her surroundings may be different, but Kikuchi’s face alone speaks a thousand words: her wonderful, mostly silent performance conveys an incredibly intense passion and deep, deep melancholy that cannot not suddenly change. Kumiko forever lives an internal life: in Tokyo she shuts down when confronted with the prospect of human interaction, and in Minnesota any chance of communication is scuppered by the language barrier and the evident culture clash. Kumiko is just as isolated in small-town America, even if people do actually notice her there because of her Otherness. Whether Kumiko is displaying symptoms of mental illness or is simply an eccentric that has fallen between the cracks of a regimented culture is somewhat ambiguous. But it doesn’t really matter; the film isn’t trying to address that. What’s more important is recognising the dichotomy between reality and fantasy, and that the fantastic, in its manifold guises, can speak to the soul in ways that what purports to be real cannot. Kumiko’s quixotic quest, her boundless obsession motivated by monotony, is something we’ve all experienced to various extents. While this makes her single-minded journey for some semblance of emotional fulfilment kind of beautiful to watch, that there has to be such a mission at all is profoundly tragic, especially when reality repeatedly bites at her. This is a true story, after all, and it ended up being the most emotionally resonant, strange, devastating, and funny experiences I had at Sundance London. That is, it’s my favourite film of the bunch. Hopefully it gets some decent distribution in the UK, because I sincerely believe that this is a film that everybody should see, even if it won’t appeal to all tastes.
The second film of the day, Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela, is also concerned with truth, but in a different way. It’s a documentary about Afrobeat pioneer and Nigerian political activist Fela Kuti that attempts to create the most comprehensive portrait of the man one could imagine in a two hour film, making extensive use of interviews with Kuti’s family, friends, and academics, as well as archival materials. This is a problematic goal to say the least, given that Fela Kuti is just about the last person you’d want to reduce to a two-hour portrait. Confusingly, the film makes a big point of how complicated Fela was, so it’s no surprise that Gibney’s endeavour for comprehensiveness leaves for an unfocused film. On one level, this is because there’s just too much to fit in, and it becomes frustrating to see some important, interesting aspects of his life brushed over quickly, such as his relationship with his children. More important, however, is that Finding Fela is miserably conventional in terms of its form. Gibney tediously organises talking head interviews and archival footage around the development and performance of the recent Broadway production, Fela! This does admittedly seem like an interesting way into the material, as Fela!’s director is seeking to find the real Kuti, but Gibney’s treatment of it never feels particularly engaging. It’s rather languid, really. Kuti was a rhythmically complex musician and an audacious man in spite of his flaws and the context of political oppression in which he worked, but the filmmaking imprisons him. Something rhythmically complex and formally bold would have been a far better fit for the man and a more active viewing experience. It would brought the material to life. What we’re left with feels like a history lesson more than a cinematic experience, and while his life is interesting and I left the film knowing more, it’s not the concise investigation of Kuti ‘the man’ and Kuti ‘the symbol’ it really ought to be. I’m sure it’ll play well on BBC4, though.