BAMCINEMAFEST REVIEW: ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ & ‘Wild Canaries’

Wild CanariesBAMcinemaFest already features congruences between its films based on most of their Brooklyn settings. Of the festival’s second night films, only Wild Canaries (B-) was set in Brooklyn (and allegedly *about* Brooklyn if writer/director/star Lawrence Michael Levine’s foreword ahead of the screening is to be elaborated on), but it set a tone early on for quirksome everyday individuals stumbling upon out-of-their-depth adventures, be them in extremely tonally distinct ways. The caper of Levine’s film is one of affectionately screwball lunacy, a choice which consistently downplays dramatic seriousness in favor of keeping the daffy mannerisms crackling, defiant of self-serious weight that might bog down less cartoonish murder mysteries.

Centering in on a sufficiently financially stable couple making plans for Barri (Levine’s partner Sophia Takal) to start a business with best friend/roommate Jean (the ever underused Alia Shawkat), much to the irritation of Barri’s partner Noah (Levine himself), whose small media business is struggling as he occasionally falls into gambling with their landlord. All it takes for their fragile state of relative domestic ease to unravel is Barri’s discovery of a kind, elderly neighbor’s dead body, whom she expects was murdered by one of the nefarious neighbors. She recruits the more gung ho Jean to aid her investigation while Noah stands by continuously in doubt and suspicion of Jean’s ulterior romantic motives towards Barri. I mean, he’s right, but he never gives us much of a reason to root for him against her.

Wild CanariesThat’s just tip of the nuttiness, which, in the grand tradition of Scooby Doo, leads them to unsuspected conclusions. However the loopy mystery of Wild Canaries is of far less consistent interest than the relationship dynamics at play, particularly between Barri and Noah. The former is a ball of unbridled energy and enthusiasm that the latter tries continuously to reign in, never supporting her emotionally as much as he boasts he does financially. Meanwhile his casual, tentative fling with a lesbian ex has us suspicious of his investment in their relationship from the start. By the time he’s supposed to finally come around, we’ve already seen him turn a blind eye to a potentially sociopathic, misogynistic asshole in their building (played by Jason Ritter, so there you go), who probably still is that regardless of if he committed the crime. Some viewers may align themselves with his feelings of apathetic disbelief. Others, like myself, may find him too unbearably inactive a life-partner to sympathize with by the end.

This doesn’t keep Levine from comically leveraging his hysterically birdlike posture (exponentially enhancing when he’s crippled by a neck brace), Noah’s dimwit status becoming crucial in keeping the hijinks going. Sophia Takal becomes the most expressive comic highlight of the film as Barri bursting with a mix of excitement and unrest at the case at hand, which she could think of as either an adventurous joyride or a real danger in her life. The back-and-forth bickering of Barri and Noah keeps matters moving in a jaunty step, even as Levine rushes to neatly resolve the triangle between Barri, Noah, and the two lesbians in their lives. The fact that there’s two lesbians immediately tips us off to how the film will likely conclude, because having two lesbians in a movie is like having two members of an endangered species. Because the other one exists, they have to fuck. It’s left to Levine’s kindergarten-Hitchcock playfulness as primarily a physically comedic director to keep us cackling through the rude male distractions and frustrating conveniences.

Kumiko the Treasure HunterWalking into Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (C+/B-), you may expect a similar comic enthusiasm to be at work, but right off the bat David Zellner’s film reveals itself to be a more psychologically tormenting adventure. It’s based on the urban legend (itself based vaguely in truth) of a Japanese woman traveling to Minnesota to seek out the lost fortune from Joel Coen’s Fargo, a film Kumiko takes cues from in more ways than one. Written by brother duo of David & Nathan Zellner, the two lift the film’s dry comic style almost directly, if too aspirationally, from the Coen’s work. Where this diverges from Fargo is how it uses its “true story” moniker in a more symbolically significant and eventually haunting way. For once it’s not so much about convincing us that what we’re seeing really happened, but reminding us of the emotional truth to be realistically or unrealistically gleaned from fictionalized narratives.

Rinko Kikuchi plays Kumiko, an unnervingly introverted Tokyo citizen working day-to-day as the quiet, socially terrified girl at her office, feeding her rabbit and only true friend Bunzo (For Your Consideration), and receiving gradually more antagonizing calls from her mother, pressuring Kumiko towards culturally institutionalized ideas of marriage and family. Socially awkward to an extreme fault, she finds the most self-confidence in her investigation of Fargo and the prop cash that lies in the Minnesota town – I hope it’s not too presumptive to expect Minneapolis residents and Coen lovers Alex and Justin to love this, probably for more than just those reasons. The film spends a surprising amount of time in Tokyo, wallowing in the dejected sadness and shrill isolation of her life there. By the time the adventure’s finally underway, we’re left perched between enthusiasm for the journey to come and concern for the continuously self-destructive actions Kumiko makes.

Kumiko the Treasure HunterWhile the latter half revels much more in the bleak beauty of the Minnesotan landscape, it avoids becomes truly exciting, largely because we’re aware of the folly in Kumiko’s quest. She meets a number of folks who, in spite the language and cultural barrier, have deeper conversations with Kumiko than she does with anyone at home. Still, their appraisal of her is almost entirely through generalizations about Japanese culture – “It’s a story from… *JAPAN*!”, an old lady kindly declares without a shred of irony while handing Kumiko a copy of James Clavell’s Shogun: A Novel of Japan. We never quite leave behind our skepticism at how well the Zellner’s themselves grasp Japanese culture, but that’s perhaps intentional for a film about people who connect more through myths, big and small, than relationships.

The myth-making process takes central focus throughout Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, most obviously in how it cements Fargo not just in history, but in legend. The Zellner’s Coen affectations are much less inspired, though, with the BAMcinemaFest audience nervously chuckling at every potentially funny scrap of dry dialogue. It’s a response I expect many viewers to reciprocate, though it feels more out of place as the film headed into ever bleaker, more haunting territory. The crescendo of Sean Porter’s ferocious cinematography and The Octopus Project’s violently shrill score results in our most palpable state of unease. It could be taken as a nails-against-chalkboard manipulation, but does the most to psychologically dismount us from “truth” and “reality”. The film itself doesn’t make that leap until the end, finally turning the cinema’s own self-instilled process of myth-making in on itself for an ending shot that’s ambiguously uplifting while maintaining its morbid bleakness.

Keep coming to Film Misery all week for more BAMcinemaFest reviews!

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