Films of the Week: Kumiko & Jauja
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
A literature teacher of mine used to insist that the only travel stories worth telling concerned one-way journeys; voyagers with return tickets had nothing of interest to recount. There’s ample support for this view in the conclusion of Interstellar, which made the odyssey to another galaxy and back seem about as momentous as a trip to your nearest laundry. Then again, there’s also plenty to refute it in the history of war cinema, especially post-Vietnam films, in which what so often fascinates us is the fact that the person coming home is never quite the person who originally left.
At any rate, two of this week’s releases are radically committed to the idea of the one-way journey—and while it might seem a spoiler to tell you that outright, it soon becomes clear that both films’ voyagers into the unknown are destined to stay in the unknown.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a modest but quietly mesmerizing piece from the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan; it comes closer to the mainstream than any previous work by this productive Austin duo, who for years mined a sometimes lurid seam of lo-fi eccentricity before making their features Goliath (08) and Kid-Thing (12). Executive-produced by Alexander Payne, Kumiko sees the Zellners going international with a road movie based on an urban legend concerning the death of a young Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, found dead in Minnesota in 2001. According to the story, which spread following a misunderstanding of the facts, Konishi was obsessed with finding the suitcase of money hidden in deep snow by the Steve Buscemi character in the Coens’ film Fargo; and while it’s almost disappointing to know that this bizarre tale already existed before the Zellners latched onto it, they make something distinctively outré, and altogether poignant, from it.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
The film begins in Tokyo, where Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, Japan’s best-known female film export) lives amid clutter, alone except for her pet rabbit Bunzo, and earns her living as an “office lady” in a joyless work environment. Unmarried and getting too old for a job that’s traditionally for the bright-eyed and ambitious, Kumiko is miserably isolated and clearly undergoing a breakdown—which is either triggered, or intensified, by her Fargo fixation. The film begins with a strange episode in which a determined Kumiko walks to a coastal cave, where something she’s seeking is buried among stones; it turns out to be a VHS of the Coens’ film. It’s the strangest episode here, because we don’t know whether it is dream or reality; and if it is real, then we don’t know how Kumiko knew to look for the tape, whether that was what she was after in the first place, or whether she planted it for herself. Whatever this scene’s status, it establishes the tone of unreality and obsession that mark the entire film.
Before long, Kumiko does a Marion Crane, skipping work with her boss’s credit card and flying to America. It’s just possible that the ensuing voyage through the snowscapes of the Midwest is itself Kumiko’s delusion, although it’s not presented as such. Indeed, it seems very much grounded in the real, in the observation of a mundane world that must seem surpassingly strange to the eyes of a Japanese traveler, but that already looks pretty odd as depicted by the Zellners—a world in which drabness co-exists with folksy Americana, epitomized by a roadside statue of Paul Bunyan’s blue ox. This admixture of the bizarre and the deadpan dreary underlies the comic roles played by the Zellners themselves, with their earnest, careworn demeanor—producer and co-writer Nathan as an evangelical airport travel guide and David, who co-wrote and directed, as a gauche but well-meaning deputy who takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant in the hope of finding a Japanese interpreter. This gently comic view of middle America—neither all-out zany nor mocking—offsets suspicions that the film’s first part might be merely a Western fantasy about the horror of Japanese working conditions. Kumiko’s office life can be seen as simply an amplification of the way that any patriarchal work environment will crush the soul of an employee, especially a woman, who is fundamentally different from her peers.
Kumiko’s trek is a classic case of the journey on which the traveler sheds every bit of extraneous baggage, and the self is reduced to its barest rudiments. By the time of the profoundly ambivalent ending, Kumiko has become a peripatetic wraith, trudging across snowy plains in a cape made from a hotel eiderdown. She’s less a person than an incarnation of implacable forward motion. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance is a feat of minimalist self-containment, revealing little of Kumiko’s response—other than muted bewilderment—to what she finds on her travels, but powerfully conveying her determination to push ahead, becoming more closed-in and self-sufficient with every step.
Like Kumiko’s voyage, the journey in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is based on a myth—but while the Zellners’ heroine is headed towards a specific magnetic point that may not really exist outside the Coens’ movie, the trajectory in Jauja leads into the open, unmapped spaces of the irreducibly unknown and unknowable. Alonso begins his film with a caption telling us that Jauja is a mythical land of plenty which many have sought, getting lost in the process. In reality, Jauja is a city in Peru, but it’s also a metaphor—the phrase país de Jauja means “land of milk and honey.” In Alonso’s film, the more appropriate translation might be “never-never land”—and it’s by no means certain that this no-place is what the protagonist is seeking in any case.
Jauja is set—according to Alonso’s notes, although the film never states this—in Patagonia in 1882, and all we know from what we see on screen is that a small detachment of Argentinian is soldiers posted on a remote stretch of coast inhabited mainly by loudly roaring seals. Posted with them is Danish captain Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), accompanied by his teenaged daughter Ingeborg (Villbjørk Mallin Agger). The company’s boorish lieutenant, Pittalunga (Adrian Fondari), first seen bare-chested and masturbating in a rock pool, has designs on Ingeborg, but she elopes with a young soldier. Dinesen rides off into the wilderness after Ingeborg and her lover, but it’s a dangerous terrain—inhabited by indigenous people whom Pittalunga contemptuously names “coconut heads” and commanded by a renegade officer named Zuluaga, a sort of Kurtz of the pampas, said to have gone mad, to wear a dress, and to be possessed of superhuman powers.
Much as it resembles a classic American Western, Jauja is every bit a Lisandro Alonso film, with all that entails. Since his 2001 debut La Libertad, Alonso has been Latin American cinema’s great poet of slowness and solitude, but, mesmerizing though his last feature Liverpool (08) was, it seemed to represent a point of exhaustion in its particular strain of screen nomadism. This was a work that caused even devout adherents of “slow cinema” to wonder whether we hadn’t finally seen enough of films in which a man walked across Patagonia very, very slowly.
Jauja gives us that again, up to a point, but it’s also different. Co-written with poet and novelist Fabian Casas, this is Alonso’s first venture into out-and-out fabulism, in which the journey becomes not just implicitly mythic, as in Liverpool and Los Muertos (04), but overtly so. Once the hero lights out for the grasslands—which soon become a labyrinth of rocky outcrops, then an altogether more lunar prospect—Dinesen* has lost his map, his inner compass, and much of what had defined his stable 19th-century officer-class self, including his hat and his horse.
I won’t say too much about what happens en route, except that the story eventually ceases to be remotely realistic and becomes truly dreamlike, metaphysical, mystical—classify it as you will. Jauja seemed to me to drift into a too-vaporous impasse during an eerie episode in which, in the middle of nowhere (but where are we ever, the film really asks, except Nowhere?), Dinesen encounters a strange elderly woman, played by Danish veteran Ghita Nørby. But then the film goes somewhere else again, in an enigmatic, subtly dazzling twist—with faint, eerie echoes of 2001—that makes you question the laws of space and time (perhaps), and of narrative and imaginative logic (definitely).
Jauja is a departure for Alonso in other ways. One is the casting of a known star—and Danish-American Mortensen, raised in Argentina, might have had this film tailor-made for him. He’s rather wonderful in the role of a taciturn military father, touchingly comical as he subsides into embarrassed fluster at his daughter’s vagaries; then he assumes the true grandeur of a Western hero as he sets out into the altogether Fordian desert, where he becomes, like Kumiko, a walking embodiment of determination and absolute solitude.
The other departure is a highly stylized visual approach; DP Timo Salminen, known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki, shoots in a 4:3 ratio with rounded edges, redolent of 19th-century photographic vignettes. The early, hyper-composed images suggest still photos: the opening shot of Dinesen and Ingeborg, sitting together like twin statues, the father with his back to us; and later, Ingeborg standing immobile in a blue dress, a horse nearby, grassy hills in the background. Later, the landscapes remind us that ’Scope is not indispensable for evoking vastness: the tight parameters of these frames encourage us to imagine an infinity outside their edges. Rich colors suggest both dream and the artifice of Hollywood Westerns: deep blue clouds on a sky fading to yellow at its base resemble a painted backdrop; pools of golden firelight in a night shot are manifestly lit, as if on a studio set. Visual leitmotifs suggest threads through the maze: pools and streams whose mirrored surfaces suggest doors into other worlds, a tin soldier that turns up in unexpected places.
Jauja is hugely suggestive for what it doesn’t show: notably the historical context, only alluded to on screen, but explained in Alonso’s notes, of the genocidal “Conquest of the Desert” undertaken in the 1880s by Argentine troops against Patagonia’s indigenous peoples. Also unseen are the land of Jauja itself and the possibly apocryphal Zuluaga (unless that’s his arm, in a deliciously comic shot, creeping into frame to steal Dinesen’s hat). It’s a wonderful sound film too, with birds, wind, sea and seals sonically “framing” those vignettes at the start, and an extraordinary moment in which Dinesen rides off into the far desert singing, while his voice comes right into the foreground. Mortensen himself, on piano, also collaborates on the score with guitarist Buckethead—their sparse, lyrical interlude marking the point at which the film truly crosses the border into dream territory.
Like Kumiko, and like Alonso’s previous work, Jauja is one of those films that specialize in the profound making-strange of natural landscapes, turning the real into the backdrop of hallucination: I’m thinking of Zabriskie Point, El Topo, and, of course, Jarmusch’s Dead Man. These are all examples of the metaphysical or oneiric Western, in which the traveller’s soul contacts to its sparest essence—and in which the real treasure, the mythical object for which the film sets out, is finally nothing more than the very film that it ends up being.
*His very name, echoing Isak Dinesen, the nom de plume of writer Karen Blixen, evokes the realm of the imaginary.