Chris Weitz is an Academy Award-nominated writer, director, producer and actor, with credits including: American Pie (director, producer), About a Boy (co-writer, director), The Golden Compass (director), Twilight: New Moon (director), A Better Life (director), and Disney’s Cinderella (writer.) Weitz’s next project is a standalone Star Wars film, Rogue One, releasing in December 2016. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.
Just like people, some films get all the attention. I’m writing this on Friday, March 13, as Cinderella, which I worked on, opens on 3,845 screens, having been lavished for weeks with the sort of marketing and hype that only Disney can bring to one of its core sub-industries. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will be opening Friday March 20, presumably on fewer screens, with a little less fanfare. Now, there is nothing inherently good or bad about a big opening or a small one, but in a just universe, every film — because every film is fucking hard to make — would get the same shot at being seen by the public.
In the Zellner brothers’ movie, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an “office lady,” an underappreciated drone surrounded by imbeciles who get excited at the idea of having their eyelashes permed. No one really cares for her, not even her mother, who besets her with anxious questions about work and marriage. But Kumiko, outwardly withdrawn and depressed, has a vivid fantasy life. In it, she is a treasure hunter who sets off on a quest to recover the bag of money hidden by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ Fargo, which she takes to be a true story.
In one regard this is a fairy-tale, as the bright red-hooded coat she wears from the first scene indicates. In another, it’s a horror movie, or a movie of horrors; the coat also calls to mind the terrifying child/homunculus of Don’t Look Now and the red-coated little girl from Schindler’s List.
Because Kumiko is insane. I’ve looked over some reviews of the film lately, and it is baffling that any question remains in the minds of certain critics as to whether she is delusional or simply dreamy in a twee, Amélie sort of way. The unsettling score by the Octopus Project, as well as any other number of indicators, leaves me in little doubt. Whatever the reason, and whatever bemusing and amusing and hypothetically triumphant material the Zellner brothers wring from the situation, Kumiko is unhinged and heading for something terrible.
While I would like to force the moviegoing public to watch this film, perhaps strapped into chairs with their eyes forced open, it would still be only fair to point out that it takes a certain adjustment of narrative metabolism to appreciate it. It is not dictated by the cocaine-like logic of studio movies. It is slow. It is beautiful (great work by D.P. Sean Porter). Kumiko leaves her job and Japan about a half-hour later than she would after the studio notes.
But I didn’t mind. I’m a sucker for Japan. My dad, who had business there, took me and my brothers when I was 13, and it got under my skin. It’s not just the gardens and the food and the tea ceremonies and the samurai movies; it’s the textured, sometimes alienating modernity as well. The Zellners have a good time with it, the boxy interiors that practically demand blocking off bits of the frame, the apartment clutter, the serviceable grey streets. In spite of the fact that the film is, in its Japanese setting, crisp and handsome, there is a terrible feeling lurking. It makes me think of how, 70 years ago, American bombers incinerated 100,000 people and flattened Tokyo, making way for all of that modernity and the work culture that built it. Four years ago, 18,000 people died from a tsunami, an entire region was irradiated and a gigantic Japanese corporation concerned itself mostly with ass-covering. Kumiko’s office-and-convenience-store-and-studio-apartment Tokyo is oppressive and banal, and it’s not surprising that she wants out.
But she is also going out of her mind. The film gestures at the quirkiness of the Coen brothers’ work; there are funny Minnesotans and a naïve, kindly cop. This is a bit of a ruse, though. For a little while, you think maybe Kumiko will draw herself back from the edge and find her true goal in a tender romance on the other side of the world — there’s a meet-cute and everything. I found myself dreading the happy ending at the same time as my gut was aching for it. But it was not to be, and way it works, or rather doesn’t, feels clever and cruel and inevitable at once. That’d work for the movie, too. It has one of those escapist endings, like Brazil or All is Lost, but it doesn’t do what it promises. It made me think, what do we want from movies? And why do people make movies?
The best answer to that question from the point of view of a person who makes them is that it’s fun to do, when everything is going the way it’s supposed to, and nobody’s hassling you. And the best way to do that is to make movies with your sibling. The times I’ve had making movies with my brother have been the happiest, film-wise. To have somebody who gets what you’re trying to do and has your back and shares the same conceptual world, perverse as it may be, is invaluable when it comes to directing, when everybody is asking questions and second-guessing. The rest of the time, the director is on his or her own, sticking stubbornly to some load of nonsense they’ve cooked up, like poor Kumiko. In a slightly different world, she’d be an outsider artist, and sell her hand-sewn treasure maps. In this one, she’s screwed.
Anyhow, Kumiko, the film not the person, does have a few people on its side, including Alexander Payne, so there’s already a decent amount of awareness. And the advance word is great. In fact, its Rotten Tomatoes rating is a beefy 89 percent, beating little old Cinderella. I hope a lot of people see Kumiko. It’s more than worth it.