Oscar season always leaves me feeling a little washed up. Who can sustain an enthusiasm for genuinely good cinema amidst the flurry of mega-publicized films relentlessly, aggressively striving for attention, edginess, accolades, debates, and the emotional manipulation of audiences everywhere? After that fated evening of industry hoopla, and the seemingly unending opinion battles between impassioned friends who found their opinions in their back pockets, it’s fair to say we all need a break. But the next time I went to the cinema, it certainly wasn’t any slick and flashy shtick that drew me out, but rather, an old favourite, nothing less than my favourite ’90s Coen Brothers flick. And let me tell you, it was a welcome respite, and a true delight.
In an amusing parallel, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is the newest from another pair of filmmaking brothers, the Zellners. Kumiko is a 29-year old in Tokyo without any job or relationship prospects. She has a bunny she feeds microwave noodles, though. Quirky, certainly, and she also has a map to a large case of money buried in the snow in North Dakota. After finding a VHS tape of 1996’s Fargo quite mysteriously in a cave in the beginning of the film, the opening titles of the cult classic, declaring it “a true story” leads our lonely protagonist to believe the cash is still there on the side of the highway, marked by a bloodied automobile ice scraper surely, and so she sets out to go find it. But hold off on your psychoanalysis for a second, this isn’t really about movie-induced delusions.
It all takes place in a kind of mash of decades; cell phones are chunky, sales clerks smoke cigarettes at the till, but Kumiko’s preference for pages torn from atlases over Google maps is met with quizzical brows. But with the film’s whole concept pivoting around knowledge gained from a rewinding and fast-forwarding water-logged VHS tape ad nauseum, this film is as much about cinephilia as it is about loneliness and adventure. Nostalgia for the simplicity of a story, nostalgia for a purpose, nostalgia for a technology with a physicality; its all there.
The film takes moves in strong, steady paces toward its end. There’s no rush. Kumiko is the only one going anywhere, after all. This serves the film well as it gives time to take in an unhurried cinematography style that is easy on the eyes; diffuse light and a soupcon of playfulness in the Tokyo scenes, and the stark and slightly absurd ones in America that seem to be winking at you (a la Coen Brothers, of course). Moments of humour are scattered throughout, unexpected, and add to the pleasurable, youthful mischievousness of our main character embarking on a journey we know, realistically, will end in tears. Yet, the film doesn’t lean one way or the other, it expertly balances the knowledge audience members are bringing in, as they are surely, like myself, already fans of Fargo to begin with, with more than simply the wishful thinking of Kumiko, but the ambiguous realities of her world itself. Many things are unclear, unexplained, and they remain so. You don’t have to know. And as Kumiko travels closer and closer to where she thinks the treasure should be, do we hold our breath for the wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment? Or is this moment denied entirely?
Well acted, comfortingly familiar, yet distinctively original, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is sad and sweet, nostalgic and harshly real, and a pleasure to watch.