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Review: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a Beautiful, Brutal Surprise

I was expecting Pirate Booty.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter isn’t what I expected it to be (just based off the name and a few promotional images, I thought I was settling in for a swashbuckling steampunk adventure story), and that’s great. Personally, I think the less you know going into this movie the better, so if you’re a die-hard fan of Rinko Kikuchi or a film buff with a vested interest in how pop culture influences modern folklore, put yourself on Kumiko media blackout and just go see it already.

It’s hard to say how much my enjoyment of Kumiko would have been diminished by knowing more about the movie or its real-life inspiration beforehand, but if you’re already familiar with the plot, rest assured that this is still a gorgeous film, reminiscent of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Kaguya visually (much of the movie is just shots of a red-cloaked Rinko Kikuchi against a stark white background) and thematically–both protagonists are single-minded women alienated by their own determination.

This might be the angsty New Yorker in me talking, but I felt Kumiko also perfectly captured the daily loneliness and degradations that come from living in a big city; the scenes in which Kumiko is targeted by her male boss for being single were particularly uncomfortable and familiar.

Although the movie isn’t afraid to show the inherent hilarity in some of Kumiko’s struggles (a scene in which she runs into a persistent acquaintance of hers had me simultaneously cringing and cackling), but if there’s one complaint I could understanding someone having, it’s that most of the film is so bleak it’s suffocating. Kumiko’s self-imposed isolation is compelling, but incredibly difficult to sit with (the movie’s powerful but almost-claustrophobic score doesn’t help, either).

Again, for the sake of prospective viewers’ experiences, there’s not much else I can say except that Kikuchi is perfectly cast and almost-animalistic as Kumiko, and the Zellner brothers (Nathan and David Zellner wrote the script; Nathan also directed) have crafted a respectful and empathetic version of a story that in lesser hands could have been played for exploitative laughs. There are laughs in Kumiko, but they’re the earned and inevitable laughs of friction that come from opposing values and different cultures confronting and comforting one another.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opened in New York on Wednesday and opens in L.A. today.

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