Culture clashes are common place in cinema. Coming To America saw the funny side of them, and Hong Khaou’s Lilting recently took a deeper look at their more tragic implications. On a fundamental level, you have a person uprooted from their home and placed somewhere alien – they don’t speak the language, they don’t get the etiquette, they don’t like the food, and so on. But what happens when you’re an alien wherever you go? Such is the sorry state of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter‘s titular character – a woman with a loose grasp on reality, who is far from home even in her own apartment.
In a semi-bizarre reflection of The Man Who Fell to Earth – in which an alien comes to earth looking for water and becomes a drunk – Kumiko tells the story of an outcast who comes to America in search of riches, only to end up homeless. It took me a good while to realize what the movie was actually about. Played with vulnerable brilliance by Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko doesn’t utter a word for the first 5 minutes, but slowly we’re introduced to her day to day existence. She’s a character in vehement denial of her unremarkable reality – a boring office job, a tiny and cluttered apartment and a mother who manages to be domineering down a phone line aren’t the sort of things most of us want in our late 20s.
But Kumiko’s escapism is several steps further than your basic Walter Mitty-esque day-dreaming. Remember that briefcase full of money that Steve Buscemi buried about two thirds of the way into Fargo? Kumiko’s convinced that the money’s still there, and she’s determined to up sticks from her native Tokyo (after all, she’s got nothing there to hold her) and head to snow-swept Minnesota with little to rely on but the kindness of strangers and the clothes on her back.
This could’ve easily transformed into a ghastly, upbeat coming-of-age tale about a cute Japanese girl finally learning how to grow up, but Kumiko has far too much guts for that. Instead, it hits hard, and often, forcing blunt and painful truths upon a character doggedly insistent on wallowing in the realms of fiction. Kumiko isn’t some frothy character bound on a silly journey of discovery, she’s a depressed, naive child willing to let her life fall to pieces for one final shot at the stuff of dreams. There are numerous instances in the film where she literally runs out of frame, only to be dragged back by a security guard or a second thought. She’s spent her whole life on the run from the real world, but always ends up pulled back like a dog on a leash – be it by crushing financial revelations, or something as simple as a chance meeting with an old school friend.
Your enjoyment of the film hinges near totally on whether you buy into Kumiko as a character. Sure, the cinematography is often breathtaking and the plot progresses at a steady clip, but the film will only take you as far as you allow its protagonist to lead you. She’s petulant, selfish and deeply, deeply melancholic – some will find her annoying, others will find her tragic, many will even find her strangely relatable.
Those who find Kumiko irritating will never be able to enjoy the film. This is her story through and through, and Kikuchi is a near constant presence on the screen. It’s not quite a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, but there will be those who won’t get it, and then those who allow themselves to be whisked off on an odd, nuanced and occasionally existential trip through Tokyo back alleys and down fog-coated highways.
I’ve always been a fan of pleasant surprises, and Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter has been the latest in a long line of films this year that have quietly exceeded my expectations. Part road movie, part treasure hunt, part homage to the haunting beauty of the great American wilderness, it’s an emotionally charged gem featuring a wonderful central performance from the newly Hollywood-friendly Kikuchi. This is a film that dares to dream, and dares you to dream with it.