For the most part we live in disenchanted times: everyday life and the political landscape seem increasingly dried of their magical possibilities. Instead they are filled with dross and drone, the relentless violence of war and the pursuit of individual material gain.
That is not to say we don’t still gather around our storytellers and myth-makers to help us re-enchant this disappointing present. Film, of course, remains one of the most beautiful storytelling art forms. Re-enchantment takes on complex trajectories and encounters, beguiling us with its tall fantasies and richly evocative impressions.
If there is one recent film that captures this sublime dance between the anomic present and hopeful questing, then it is Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, one of the standout films of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.
The film tells the “true story” of Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a lonely and isolated “office girl” who believes, or at least invests in the magic possibility, that the suitcase of stolen cash that was buried in the classic 1996 Coen brothers movie Fargo is really there to be discovered.
Kumiko watches the loot “burial” scene over and over on a disintegrating VHS tape. With careful precision she makes a cloth map where she thinks X marks the exact spot where the treasure can be unearthed. Stealing her condescending boss’s credit card, she travels from the atomised concrete jungle of Tokyo to the white winter wastelands of Minnesota with the sole intent of discovering the cash.
However, her journey is as much psychological and sensorial, as she crosses between the liminal borders of the real and the illusionary. Fact and fiction are woven together like a mystical tapestry in this film. The utopian possibility of film’s dream-state is drawn upon to create encounters of hope and longing, and mentalscapes of desire and belonging.
Tokyo to Minnesota
The film’s mise-en-scène moves from the closed and tightly framed spaces of a teeming but disconnected Tokyo to the expansive if primal spaces of a bleached Minnesota.
These spaces, however, are not filmed entirely for their logics of difference.
Kumiko’s cramped Tokyo apartment seems to weep its own malcontent, while the tundra forest she is found in at the end of the film ensnares her in its own crown of barren thorns. She is lost in both Tokyo and Minneapolis – even if by journey’s end she undergoes a beautiful resurrection in the depths of the snow.
Shot in anamorphic widescreen and with a subjective point of view, we experience the world through Kumiko’s eyes and ears.
In the Tokyo settings, everything in her peripheral vision is rendered a blur and the sounds that she hears are amplified, distorted and estranged. This is internal diegetic sound, emanating from the mind of a character, which squarely draws us into her wayward subjectivity in the world.
Listening with Kumiko
In one scene in the film, as she sits in a café with a friend’s child she has only just met, the discordant sound of a coffee espresso machine becomes a distressed wailing child. As Kumiko takes physical flight, so do we mentally - our taut imaginations bent out of shape by the world turned sonically upside down.
The sound design for the film is magnificent, scored by the experimental indie pop group, The Octopus Project - who were awarded the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Musical Score at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Their score is then mixed or blended with the actual Fargo soundtrack. It is as if we are hearing two films simultaneously, both being played out in Kumiko’s psyche.
The closer that Kumiko gets to the mythical treasure the more the sonic textures seem to bleed out from her own conscious embodiment. In the winter storm she is finally engulfed in we witness her breakdown and the breakdown of the sound and image in the film as momentarily everything turns to darkness and silence.
Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as Kumiko is simply extraordinary. Mostly silent, communicating through gesture, facial expression and the liquid impressions of her doleful eyes, she captures the innocence of the protagonist struggling to make sense of her own alienation in the modern world. The close-up shot that is employed to capture her bewilderment is heartrending – all we have is her tears and melancholy to feel.
Her relative silence draws attention to power inequalities in the world, and to cultural differences such as the one she encounters with the old lady who offers her the book Shogun as an example of excellent Japanese literature.
This is also, then, a film of constant allusion and tiered self-reflexivity: the red coat that Kumiko wears throughout the film is reminiscent of both Little Red Riding Hood and the girl/killer from Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film Don’t Look Now. The blanket she wears at the end of the film calls to mind the spaghetti western and the kabukimono of Kabuki theatre, while Takeshi Kitano’s 2002 film Dolls registers as one of its textual references. The film’s strong central character pays homage to the cinema of Werner Herzog, while the ski-lift ride Kumiko takes at the film’s end is a direct allusion to his 1977 film Stroszek.
Truth, of course, haunts the film, as it does much of contemporary life. In an age of sound bites, misinformation, propaganda and news agenda setting, truth seems to be in short supply. Cinema, of course, creates believable worlds and demands of us our suspension of disbelief.
Kumiko distrusts the possibility of there being truth in the real world but imagines she can find it in the fictitious folds of film. She cannot distinguish between the real and fiction, and neither perhaps can we, as the image-makers of the world flood us with their own terrible fictions.
Note: a thank you to Tania Lewis for seeing and hearing the film, and for discussing its beautiful truths with me.
The Melbourne International Film Festival 2014 runs until Sunday August 17.