Kimuko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)

Directed by David Zellner

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In Kimuko, The Treasure Hunter, a 29 year-old woman from Japan heads to America to find the treasure from the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo.  Her search for something from a fictional story brings to mind the fruitless, stubborn efforts of a Werner Herzog character (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo), and her motivation has more to do with the ways she feels cast aside at home.

Kimuko becomes a fish out of water in a country she has never before visited, presumably, but she is just as much on the outside in Japan where, as a 29-year old unmarried woman, she is ostracized by friends, coworkers and family.  Some cast her aside deliberately, and others have no idea they are contributing to their pain, their expectations and assumptions a symptom of the culture at large more than an indicator of their true character.

Kimuko comments on these gender roles and expectations, much as two other Zellner brother films, Kid-Thing and Damsel, do.  They have something to say about the expectations placed on women in the world at large today, and their single-minded characters work sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously against these double standards.

It’s had to tell if Kimuko ever had any interest in marriage, children or the other conventions of a 21st century healthy, happy woman.  Her budding obsession with a briefcase full of money which Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo buries by the side of the road takes control of her only as the forces around her begin to more heavily force her into the ground.

She has a disappointed boss and a mother eager for news of a marriage, promotion or kids.  Anything else is a letdown, and let her down Kimuko continually will.  

The first half of the film takes place in Japan where Kimuko struggles to live the life others lead and expect of her.  It is as though she is the hero of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where no one is explicitly antagonistic, but their leering smiles and supposed sincerity prove sinister to the protagonist and audience.  When someone questions her about her age, children or the like, we wince just as she does.

The obsession with the supposed treasure then has little to do with the treasure itself.  Kimuko is just so relegated to the edge of society that she has no choice but to withdraw further into herself.

The reason she believes the treasure to be real, it seems, is that Fargo opens with a title card that says the following story is true.  The movie is very untrue, of course, but Kimuko’s willingness to believe it highlights the ways in which people do form assumptions and opinions on real life from works of fiction.  These heightened, dramatic, glorified points of view may speak to a true emotion, but the more literal components of the film are often embellished.  This may have to do with how a character speaks or something as simple as how a character looks, the lighting and mise en scene.  As audiences we are so accustomed to these well-lit, beautiful people-packed stories that we accept them as true on some level.  We may know that romantic comedies follow a highly improbable but ultimately cathartic structure which has more to do with making money than reflecting back to us real life, and yet we may nevertheless form certain expectations about the opposite sex, relationships and the roles we play based on these stories.  If you hear the same story over and over again, you’re bound to take something from it.

I don’t know if there is a broader point made here about an artist’s responsibility to clarify truth and fiction, but I do think the movie suggests there are unintended consequences to these narrative works.  There is a power to film, in other words, that might often be ignored or otherwise misunderstood.  

Kimuko will end with a highly improbable resolution which quickly burrows into outright fictitious.  The text in this moment calls attention to its own artifice and makes sure you know that even within this story universe what we see happening onscreen isn’t really happening.  Kimuko, the Treasure Hunter embraces its own lie because it makes for a feel good finale and comments on the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Within all of this there are wonderful moments of intimacy between strangers.  Kimuko’s journey is absurd, and yet she runs into people who seek to help her along the way.  Some have ulterior motives (have you heard the good word?) while others attempt to steer her in another direction, but either way they act more as bowling lane bumpers than speed bumps in her journey.

One of these kind strangers is a deputy played by director David Zellner.  He’s a polite man who tries his hardest to let Kimuko down easily once he learns just what she’s willing to risk freezing to death for.  He’s alarmed by her misguided determination, though soon he glimpses through the silent facade and recognizes the pain underneath.  

This recognition comes after the final conversation between Kimuko and her mom, a phone call in which her mom lashes out at her for her recent poor behavior and yet again reminds her that she has shamed her family by not being married, promoted or pregnant.  

It’s a quietly devastating scene in which Kimuko tries to correct her mother’s misconceptions about her own daughter but fails to do so.  She insists that her mission is an important one, and she says it as much to herself as to her mother.  Kimuko needs to succeed because this odyssey is the only thing tethering her to the real world.

Up Next: Six Days, Seven Nights (1998), Rampage (2018), First Man (2018)

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