By Linc Leifeste | March 19, 2015
Director: David Zellner
Writers: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Vernard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Alternately stunningly beautiful and drearily depressing, equal parts quirky comedy and snail’s pace meditation, the Zellner Brothers’ latest, Kumiko, is an emotionally poignant visual tour de force. Easily their most structured and coherent work, whether the Zellners have created a beautiful fairy tale or a bleak fable of repressive culture, depression and mental illness (or both at the same time) is up to the viewer’s interpretation. Beautifully shot by Sean Porter, this is a visually stunning, meditative film accompanied by a flawless score from the Octopus Project and featuring a powerhouse performance by lead actress Rinko Kikuchi.
Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a 29-year-old Japanese “office lady” who is clearly miserable. She’s stuck in a job that is usually reserved for younger women, she’s single at an age where expectations are she should be married and having children and nobody seems to like her. Her shallow coworkers find her odd. Her boss is showing signs that he’s on the verge of firing her. Her mother is constantly giving her grief for not living up to expectations: “When are you getting a promotion? Are you seeing anyone? You need to move back in with us in the meantime.” Kumiko, the round peg, clearly does not fit into the square hole that society is insisting she settle into.
In the meantime, she has come into possession of an old, worn VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. We see her walking into a seaside cave and finding the tape hidden under a rock, whether she’d hidden it there herself prior or somehow just discovered it out of the blue is not quite clear. But she has clearly become obsessed with viewing the film over and over, taking to heart the opening text about it being a true story. Convinced that Steve Buscemi’s character has actually buried a satchel full of money under the snow on a Fargo roadside, she is analyzing the tape repeatedly trying to determine the money’s exact location.
Split into two halves, the film moves into it’s second act when Kumiko finally flees her hopeless situation, stealing her boss’ credit card and flying to Minnesota. Here, as Kumiko attempts to make her way from Minnesota to Fargo, the film feels like several absurdist set pieces placed back to back, from the religious travel agents (Nathan Zellner) who corner her at the airport to the friendly woman who picks her up walking along a snowy roadside, taking her home to give her lots of friendly advice before gifting her with a paperback copy of James Clavell’s Shogun to read. She stays in a hotel, only to discover that her stolen credit card has been canceled when she tries to pay, leaving her without any money. She meets a friendly but inept police officer (David Zellner), who buys her a meal and gets her some warm clothes even as he tries to convince her that Fargo is just a movie, not a true story. She embarrassingly mistakes his kindness for romantic interest and soon flees in tears.
Determined to find her hidden treasure, Kumiko continues her quest undaunted. But of course there is no hidden treasure waiting for her at the end of her quest. Or is there? Kikuchi is simply stunning in her turn as the idiosyncratic title character, equally fragile and headstrong, tender yet brave. She movingly conveys heartbreak, anger and despair, all tempered by an irrational faith in something better awaiting her. Interestingly, Kumiko is based on a true story from 2001 about a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi, or more accurately it’s inspired by the urban legend that grew up around Konishi’s true story. And fittingly this is a film that has all the beauty, poignancy and lasting power of folklore and legend.