By Marshall Shaffer
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
A shy, young office worker in Japan mysteriously stumbles upon a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” and begins to interpret it as a factual document pointing her to buried treasure in the snows of North Dakota.
That constitutes the basic premise of the odd, eccentric film “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” by the Zellner Brothers. The duo certainly concocted a unique caper, one that allows a bunny and a tawdry motel duvet cover to dwarf the acting prowess of their Academy Award-nominated star Rinko Kikuchi. She plays Kumiko as the introvert that her character is, although her timidity and ambivalence at times makes for a frustrating watch. (For a while, I wondered if she was playing another mute character like she did in “Babel.”)
Kumiko makes for a particularly tough read because the Zellners, quite admirably, provide very little context with which to make sense of her. Is she a naive, childlike protagonist on a quixotic quest like Thomas Schell from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” or is she driven by sinister demons like the two assassins who claimed that J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” told them to kill people? The question does not get answered until the very end of “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” and it provides a precious sense of tension to hold flagging interest.
The curiosity generated by the Zellners’ novel concept gradually dissipates as their tedious pacing and unrelenting ambiguity steers the film. “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” is worth watching through to the end, if for no other reason than to find out what on earth will happen with this strange character. The rewards for enduring such a slog, however, hardly amount to bountiful treasure.
Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “Deli Man” surveys the history and recent decline of the Jewish delicatessen in America from a very familiar vantage point to me: Kenny & Ziggy’s, a dining establishment located just blocks away from my childhood home in Houston. I have made countless memories there … and probably consumed about as many calories of owner Ziggy Gruber’s food.
But the location alone can hardly account for how voraciously I devoured the film. Anjou’s doc went down like a good pastrami sandwich – satisfying and extremely filling. He weaves Ziggy’s personal narrative with the larger cultural and ethnic story with an ease that escapes many non-fiction filmmakers. Furthermore, he manages to inform without ever boring the viewer.
I, for one, learned plenty from “Deli Man.” The number of authentic Jewish delis in America has shrunk to about 150 from multiple thousands in their 1930s heyday; I would have thought the latter total was the accurate count (probably because my Jewish relatives always manage to find one in every town). Most attribute the decline to ethnic assimilation, although there still exists a rare breed, like Ziggy, that persists in maintaining a connection to the ancestors who immigrated from Europe.
Ziggy takes the lion’s share of attention in “Deli Man,” though Anjou still provides a panoramic view of the delicatessen scene from Los Angeles to New York. Each owner profiled has an interesting take on the business as well as a fascinating story as to how they managed to stay afloat. If their dishes taste half as good as Anjou makes them look in the film, though, I cannot fathom any of them ever going out of business.
Over the past few years, the phenomenon of binge-watching television shows has essentially revolutionized the way media and narratives are consumed. When they can sit still for longer than the duration of a ten-second snapchat, people now want a rapid succession of rising action and escalating climaxes.
Argentinian director Damián Szifron is certainly not the first person to create an anthology film, nor is he unique in housing multiple narrative threads under the same canopy. Nonetheless, his “Wild Tales” feels special in the way it adapts this form to meet the demands of an audience with access to troves of great television (not to mention short films). This thematically curated collection of six large scale mini-movies permits a rhythm of continual engagement and repeated payoff.
These dividends feel substantially greater than the average movie. The effect could have something to do with the quantity of storytelling present in “Wild Tales,” yet Szifron also brings some serious quality to the table as well. His characters and scenarios range from a jilted wife at her wedding reception to a raging motorist and even a plane full of people who all crossed the wrong man, but they all somehow circle back to matters of animalistic revenge and cosmic karma.
Fittingly, Szifron supplies a wickedly biting sense of irony to every tale. While the guiding approach to each story might be similar, the manifestations are only similar in their dark, demented humor. Those familiar with the social and political context of Argentina might get a little more out of the film, though “Wild Tales” communicates on such primal channels of human impulse that its appeal is not tied to one nation. Anyone who has ever felt victimized or wronged by some unexplained force should find something relatable in Szifron’s compilation … and then relish hovering over the proceedings, observing the pain of others from a god-like distance.
“Wild Tales” is screening as a collaboration with the Hispanic League. This film and the others reviewed here will be at a/perture this weekend. You can find showtimes and tickets HERE.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE. You can hear Marshall’s new podcast HERE.