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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Every Distance Is Not Near
by Donald Levit

Rinko Kikuchi’s title character might as well be deaf and dumb like her Babel Chieko, for all the nearly zero English and little more Japanese she squeezes out in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. It is a rural taxi driver (Phil Hall) who is deaf now, but just as in Iñárritu’s 2006 jewel, her character again offers herself to and is rejected by a representative of the law.

The feel is that of Minnesotan Coens’ Fargo, not only for a mostly unserviceable VHS tape of that film that a needlepoint map leads her to, but also in the fumbling laconic northern Midwesterner good hearts all, Lake Wobegon Lutherans who, with earlier Tokyoites, uncomprehendingly try to help but are rejected in their turn. For afternoon interviews and then an evening Q&A to cap the Museum of the Moving Image/MoMI’s showing of three of their features and some shorts, brothers David and Nathan Zellner flew in from Austin that snowy morning and remarked that the white stuff was heavier than during the winter 2013 Minneapolis shooting but that it fit what they called the hundred five minutes’ “total immersion second only to Avatar,” they serio-joked, extending to the music and “landscape [which] is a character in the film.”

Kumiko does not get so far as Fargo, across the river in another state. The brothers’ script (David directing, Nathan co-producing, both acting) posits sadness but can be uplifting and gives rise to various interpretations, ending in dream or warm fuzzy fulfillment of a vision. In T.H. White’s Arthurian world, the quest becomes an end in itself, as important as the Holy Grail, which is one way of looking at the twenty-nine-year-old Japanese’s search, too. Determination, however, may calcify into monomania which isolates the seeker, metastasizes and destroys. “We each have our own path. . . . It’s my destiny,” which she fulfills.

This is backstory thought out from the unresolved 2001 part urban legend of Takako Konishi, found frozen in Minnesota, and might be seen as a call for understanding in the face of the “cultural barriers” that pain nice-guy Tyrrell County deputy sheriff Caldwell (David Z). Conventional married ex-friend Michi (Kanako Higashi) and macho married manager Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube) -- “Are you a homosexual?” -- would indicate that this Office Lady, OL, gofer once fit into the crowd. Her red hoodie helping set her apart in the anthill megalopolis -- and, topped with a coat of many colors comforter, in the Upper Midwest whiteout -- she reassures her Japanese Jewish mother (Yumiko Hioki) with local and long-distance lies while branding others the “thieves and liars.”

On the “true story . . . out of respect for the dead” video, bloodied Steve Buscemi buries in the snow a black case of crisp banded hundred-dollar bills. From the title -- the city named, by the way, for the cofounder of the famous express company -- a map torn from the library atlas, and measurements from the TV screen, she locates North Dakota’s largest city and cross-stitches a red X-marks-the-spot beside the barbed-wire snowbound fence. With her employer’s business credit card, she deplanes in Twin Cities, to a de-icing ballet and welcome from a born-again and a goggle-glasses noisy map unfolder (Nathan Z and Brad Prather).

Kumiko barely notices those kind hearts “just trying to help you” in this Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, still a hundred foot-miles from the single place name she repeats. Spoken language limited for her, Kikuchi acts with body language, a shuffle walk, and eyes as marvelously expressive as any you will see. Only once do words alone directly express feeling, when an outburst of frustrated anger at the sole object of her affection, pet rabbit Bunzo, warns us that something is not right upstairs.

Single-minded compulsive pursuit of “an important discovery” renders her oblivious to reality and other people. Its population eight times that of the entire state of Minnesota, contiguous metropolitan Tokyo-Yokohama-Kawasaki National Capital Region offers groupthink which is not the answer; neither, however beautiful in Sean Porter’s lens, is the chiaroscuro winter wilderness of sub-zero temperatures, iced waters and feral dogs. This world, it would seem, is not for Holy Fools.

(Released by Amplifying Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)

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