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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

(Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter premiered at the 2014 Sundance FIlm Festival and is currently in theaters released by Amplify)

Once upon a time…there were a set of filmmaking brothers whose magical films enveloped you in a dreamscape of skewed reality where you laughed and cried and wanted to be a better person. Obviously I am talking about the Zellner Brothers. The contemporary fables they create are entirely their own. Their twisted realities unfold with a wide, sweet smile in the face of cynicism. Their latest feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a culmination of the jagged hope the Zellner Brothers continue to believe in.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a thirty-year-old Japanese woman who lives in a small apartment with her fuzzy companion Bunzo the rabbit. After discovering a scratchy VHS copy of the Coen Brothers film Fargo, she sets off to America in order to find the ransom buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi. This, she declares, is her destiny.  But like all of the Zellners films, this is only the strong framework to a tale of comic and tragic characters hovering in a warped world where dreams are constantly butting up against the equally strange banality of everyday life.


Each Zellner film is driven by an outcast hero balanced by the equally awkward and confusing versions of normal these loners live within. There is no difference between the perceived weirdness of Kumiko’s vision and that of her office co-workers who get their eyelashes permed, or of her old friend settled into marriage, or even of the vulgar Americans compelled to shout at Kumiko as she walks alone along the highway on her quest: Every world looks unusual from the outside. The thing that invites us into Kumiko’s world, and makes the film a bit of a masterpiece, is the way her tale visually manifests itself.

The stunning widescreen cinematography of Sean Porter distinctly frames the film’s vision. Shot in Tokyo and the frozen American Midwest he captures deep, placid blues and greys accented by bright reds and greens, each shot a painterly beauty, continuing to solidify a distinct Zellner Brothers style. The position and movement of each scene often anticipates the moves of Kumiko, the camera a visual narrator who is telling us the fantastical tale from the future like a cooing, heartfelt bedtime story. It is a cinematic leap that I hope is only the beginning of things to come for these filmmakers.

A lot of people are hung up on the fact and fiction line of the film, an urban legend about a real life Kumiko circles the internet. But it doesn’t actually matter what is real or not. Everyone decides which alternate reality they want to live in and we all evaluate the realities of others. And in the Zellners world the suspension of judgment, the acceptance of hope, the simple acts of kindness that help another human being on whatever their crazy journey happens to be are the most redemptive acts one could ever perform. The Zellner Brothers are two large-hearted humanists urging us to be better humans across all possible worlds no matter who the protagonist of each world happens to be. The End.

– Donna K.

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