Tuesday, March 3, 2015

This Is (Not) A True Story - Notes on 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter'

This is a true story.

It's the text that opens Fargo, and it's the text that now opens Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. But, obviously, it's text you shouldn't trust.

While Fargo plays a hugely important role in shaping Kumiko, there's another text that equally plays into the Zellner Brothers' feature. That's Paul Berczeller's La Jette-inspired This Is A True Story - a short film that deconstructs an urban legend that sprung up following the tragic death of a Japanese woman in Minnesota. Certain media outlets reported that Takako Konishi had died while hunting for the briefcase full of cash buried by Steve Buscemi in Fargo. Berczeller convincingly dismantles that myth, examining how a simple misunderstanding and language barrier led to a widely misreported – albeit considerable more attention grabbing - take on what actually happened. As Berczeller explains, the 'true story' was “altogether more ordinary, easier to understand but harder to forget”.

This Is A True Story takes a myth and attempts to discover the truth. In Fargo, 'this is a true story' is little more than a wry gag, a cheeky punchline before the film has even started. In Kumiko, the opening 'this is a true story' gambit is considerably trickier and more complex than in either of those cases. The claim is presented at the outset with fuzzy, unstable VHS visuals – an early warning for the audience that reality and fiction are not going to be crystal clear here. Kumiko takes what started as little more than an ingenious little joke, and expands on it in ways that can be quite surprising.

The first 'proper' sequence is one of two that are openly yet subtly ambiguous about how genuine what we're seeing actually is. It shows Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) following a treasure map to a seaside cave somewhere in Japan. Under a rock, she discovers a battered VHS copy of Fargo. It's a disorientating opening, barely referenced again when Kumiko and the filmmakers swiftly travel back to Tokyo. Yet even at that early stage, before we've been introduced to a more mundane status quo, there's something startingly odd and unreliable about the way the 'discovery' is made, almost like an arthouse subversion of the iconic opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Who put the tape there? How did Kumiko find it? Based on what is to follow, perhaps we're rightly encouraged to question whether the origin of the tape is something Kumiko invented entirely, but has convinced herself to believe.

Kikuchi is sometimes cast solely because an American film needs a young Japanese woman – the 'Ken Watanabe' effect - yet films like Norwegian Wood have shown she is an immensely talented performer when given the opportunity. And she does an extraordinary job as Kumiko, in what is a rather unromantic role. She is an insular, edgy and alienated character, with much of the characterisation communicated through awkward body language. She's an outsider in Tokyo, which the Zellners articulate simply but effectively by often having her bold, red riding hood style coat the only stand out element in their lovely but muted widescreen frames (this motif is retained during the American sequences, with some shots directly calling back to earlier ones, as you can see in the trailer above). When she's forced to don a grey uniform for work, she becomes even more uncomfortable – somebody who is in search of identity and meaning, but cannot find it in an overwhelming metropolis.

In that context, having her become obsessed with the deluded goal of discovering the buried treasure in a fictional film is not only strangely believable, but also surprisingly poignant – and one that plays off the 'ordinary' real-world motivations that sent Takako Konishi on her tragic trip to Minnesota.

Given the concept and the range of exaggerated characters Kumiko encounters in Tokyo and her eventual voyage towards Fargo – not to mention the cutsey rabbit 'sidekick' she decides to abandon before embarking on her trip to the States - one would almost be forgiven for assuming this is just another line in a line of quirky road trips in independent film. Yet a deep melancholy runs through Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. While there are scattered chuckles to be had, the film is generally sombre and moody. Even when Kumiko is taken in by an overly friendly Minnesotan resident, or spends some time with a helpful policeman (played by director and co-writer David Zellner), again there's a surrealistic edge, almost as if our unreliable protagonist and her distorted perception of the movie Fargo - which of course is populated by many memorable caricatures - are subtly influencing events.

This is most evident when Kumiko, misinterpreting the policeman's signals, moves in for a kiss. His surprised, discouraging response rattles Kumiko – and certainly this viewer too, given how most other films would surely have played up any sort of sexual or romantic potential. There's that line between reality and a 'cinematic reality', and it's a line that the Zellners seem eager to toe.

Ultimately, the film distorts reality and imagination one last time. Growing increasingly desperate, Kumiko abandons the road to Fargo and aimlessly sets off across the desolate Minnesotan landscape, covered in a blanket for warmth (and visually isolating her in an environment that is often endless planes of snow). After an encounter with a wild dog, she eventually collapses – shortly after one powerful close-up captures her cold-battered but determined face.

Yet the following morning we see her awaken, rejuvenated. Here the Zellners hint that Kumiko may have abandoned reality entirely. She trudges onwards, eventually finding the fabled spot and uncovering her treasure. And then who hops up beside her? Bunzo, the rabbit we had seen her abandon on a Tokyo subway carriage. The final sequence had been unconvincing up until that point, but the Bunzo's appearance eloquently underlines that untrustworthiness.

The final shot, soundtracked by the cheery chants of the Yamasuki Singers, again shows Kumiko against an endless snowscape, walking away from camera. On a surface level, it's a celebratory image, a character having achieved her seemingly impossible goal. And yet the memory of that collapse – and indeed the knowledge of actual events – only grows more potent. It's an image that operates on two contradictory registers - a happy ending that is also extraordinarily sad. It plays on the details the audience knows, yet also deceives them with what is actually shown - although the sheer loneliness of the (almost) empty white landscape manages to pack one final punch.

This is a true story. Is it ever actually that simple?

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