Bright Lights Film Journal

A Regular Film: Deluded or Clear-sighted? (When artist and critic are one)

Regular or otherwise, interesting films famously have the power to take us inside other people’s heads.

* * *

In the 2014 film Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, director/co-writer David Zellner plays a small-town sheriff who stumbles across a lost-looking young woman. She speaks no English, and, because of her Asian appearance, he takes her to a Chinese restaurant to find an interpreter. Without ceremony, the manageress tells him that the stranger is Japanese and she can’t translate for them.

The sheriff seems surprised at the lack of linguistic overlap; but, as the viewer already knows, his biggest difficulty will derive from Kumiko’s reason for being there, ill-prepared as she is for winter in the Midwest. By running scenes from Fargo on the sheriff’s DVD player – footage she’s watched at home over and over in ever-noisier, ever-fuzzier VHS – she finally communicates her belief that the film is a simple record of fact. So she’s on a mission to find the cash-filled suitcase, complete with red marker, buried in the snow near the long wire fence.

His response is to tell Kumiko as gently as possible that – though the movie does, indeed, claim to be true – it’s just a regular film.

At this point the sheriff is probably beginning to realise that even if he spoke fluent Japanese, he wouldn’t be able to change her mind. But rather than steering her instantly toward mental health services, he obviously believes his first duty is to provide the raggedy girl with some decent winter gear. It’s been well established that Kumiko’s only other experience of interpersonal warmth was with a pet rabbit, “set free” ahead of her quest. Now in a clothes store, as the sheriff helps with the trying-on of weatherproof shoes, she suddenly leans over and kisses him. But, if we had any doubts about the officer’s motives, he recoils from the kiss, recovering quickly to assert his prior commitments as a married man. This is pretty much all Kumiko needs to decide she must continue her search unaided and, at the first chance, heads off on her own again.

By now we’re deep into Kumiko’s story, where not merely casual or uncaring but actively oppressive relationships have tended to predominate: the mother repeatedly phoning her daughter in the cluttered one-room apartment, always urging promotion at work or, preferably, marriage; on top of that, we’ve also seen a hyper-conformist office regime bearing down on all its employees, most of all on Kumiko.

Trying to sum her up, one review suggests that Kumiko is “jaded.” With its hint of boredom, relievable by a holiday, or perhaps a change of job – it’s not a word that prepares us for Kumiko’s defenceless drift into what appears to be a film-induced psychosis.

Here I pick up a distinct hint of cinematic self-criticism in this Zellner brothers production: made-up tales like Fargo are all very well, but what about that highly devious claim to be true? We’re not worried about the sheriff in this context because – though phrases like “meta fiction” don’t spring to his lips – there seems little threat from imagined scenarios to his own brand of innocence. Not isolated or oppressed, he’s happily married, very suited to his job, and, in short, a regular guy who – without making a big fuss about it – effectively sees through the most bleakly ironic of films.

So, if we’re going to worry about the potential evils of fiction, our focus should probably be on the potential Kumikos of this world.

Regular or otherwise, interesting films famously have the power to take us inside other people’s heads. In the final scenes of Kumiko, via a simple but sensitive use of montage, we know that a lonely young woman is dying in a remote field under a little mound of snow – no fences or suitcases in sight. Yet, from directly overhead, we watch the miraculous resurrection of a no longer raggedy Kumiko and her pet rabbit; and, under a bright red marker near the long wire fence, we find the black suitcase opening to reveal its pale, neat little stacks of hundred dollar bills.

In Haneke’s Amour from 2012, a very similar trick was played when Jean-Louis Trintignant’s wife-euthanizing, suicidal old man dreamed his own last dream – albeit a real memory of daily life within a satisfying long-term relationship.

Of course, while we remain as calm and clear-sighted – and even as innocent – as Zellner’s sheriff, we know that these films don’t offer a blanket go-ahead to commit suicide at any stage of life – even when this could mean drifting softly into oblivion on a stream of comforting fantasies. But the fact that free-thinking story-tellers do sometimes worry about the messages that can be read in their work – and worry not just because some plots might repel production money – is, I think, all to the good.