Often, when a movie feels painfully slow, it’s a result of poor pacing. The director and editor failed to distribute and arrange the story beats in such a way that it kept your interest. For instance, take Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles : even though it’s a kinetic movie, and a lot of stuff happens, it drags. However, some movies revel in slowing down, making the viewer exercise some patience not to forgive poor pacing, but to mimic the narrative or character arcs. Fargo is a great example, because it takes its time, but doesn’t lull the audience into boredom. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014) recognizes this quality of Fargo by directly incorporating the Coen brothers’ film into the main narrative.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), the titular character, lives a dull life in Tokyo, isolated in a densely populated metropolis and resistant to pressures for a woman nearing 30 to marry and start a family. Her only interest is the movie Fargo, namely the scene where Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of money on the side of a road in snowy Minnesota. As the title implies, Kumiko decides to abandon her life in Japan in order to search for the money, albeit after a lot of time spent showing the mundanity of her life.
Fargo is an apt referent for Kumiko because of the similar themes that director/writer David Zellner and co-writer Nathan Zellner are throwing around, justifying the narrative’s reliance on the 1994 critical and fan favorite. Tokyo is generally portrayed as claustrophobic due to the capital’s dense population, but Kumiko is isolated amidst the clamor. She can’t function in such an oppressively busy and indifferent place. The hostilely cold and empty landscapes of Fargo should be a contrast to her home town, but are actually a mirror.
Further, Fargo‘s focus on loneliness as a result of the failure of communication is practically lifted by the Zellners. Kumiko can barely converse with the mid-westerners; she and her mother only talk on the phone, rarely understanding each other; and in one slightly on-the-nose scene, Kumiko’s cab driver is deaf. The Zellners and Kikuchi—whose performance is low in dialogue but high in physical nuance—understand Fargo and use it to comment on who Kumiko is. Perhaps most telling is the film’s “loudest” scene: Kumiko yells at her rabbit to leave, but her pet has no idea what to do with its new-found freedom. Much like Kumiko, it cannot escape, even when all of the paths are right there.
That being said, Kumiko is an indulgent film, and the evocation of Fargo oscillates between clever inter-play, and a pretentiously slow style. The film clocks in at about 1 hour 45, and each second ticks. This is largely for effect: it communicates the painful emptiness of Kumiko’s life. But it also over-uses slowness, feeling like it’s desperately trying to appeal to a Sundance Film Festival audience, and using Fargo to fill in the empty spaces on screen and in the dialogue. Further, while I appreciate that the Zellners are emulating the Coens by using characters who are caricatures given regional stereotypes, the idea of the ignorant, small-town bumpkin is pretty tired.
I’m also uncertain about the movie’s commentary on the relation of media to those who consume it. On the one hand, Kumiko’s love of Fargo gives her purpose, a sense she would probably lack otherwise. But her inability to separate reality from fiction is clearly critiqued, as she cannot understand even those who wish to help her. The final scene is notably cynical as an extension of this (SPOILERS): although the scene is ambiguous, Kumiko falls asleep in a snowbank while looking exhausted and near death, her quest a clear failure. However, she wakes up perfectly healthy, and then stumbles upon both the treasure and her bunny that she abandoned in Tokyo. It’s pretty clear that this is her last fantasy, a sweet moment clearly denying Kumiko’s sadness until the very end. I can’t help but think that the Zellners are critiquing the way media has become reality for many, and that notion is about as new as VHS copies of Fargo. (END SPOILERS)
Kumiko is not a movie that I can describe as good or bad. It just is. I disliked how it tried to seem different and clever, while actually utilizing styles and ideas that are pandering and antiquated. However, I’m still impressed by its incredible visuals and dedication to its character analysis with thematic editing and pacing. It’s the type of movie that appeals to a specific group of people, and is very “hip” in its aesthetic, but I think it will be seen, briefly admired, and then soon forgotten.