Two women begin their stories in Japan. Both are subjected to female-filled workplaces and patriarchal expectations. One stays, the other leaves. One dies most definitely, the other may or may not have survived. One has a few white peacocks in her yard, the other has a pet rabbit named Bunzo. Both take great risks and are the eponymous leads in two films at this year’s Sundance, one in the New Frontier section and the other in the U.S. Dramatic competition. Enough hints? The women are Madame Butterfly (aka the girl from Nagasaki) in Michel Comte’s The Girl From Nagasaki and Kumiko in David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Both films follow women from similar starting points through starkly different journeys to completely different, though eerily transcendent, endings.
Based off of the oft-adapted Puccini opera, The Girl From Nagasaki is an avant garde, artistic interpretation (as you would expect from French photographer Michel Comte) that utilizes striking 3D images, ballet and opera. Living in post-war Nagasaki, Madame Butterfly (Mariko Miyamitsu) lives and works in a geisha house. She looks to escape through marriage, specifically to a rich American astronaut (the more modern twist). Through a matchmaker, she meets a man who meets her criteria and she falls headlong into a relationship, not stopping to think too hard on actual love or the logistics of their future (just expecting that those things would come into place). They marry and she falls pregnant. He goes on a mission in space (too aptly to the tune of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”). The child is born and the father is nowhere in sight, with Madame Butterfly holding on to the hope that he will soon return to her and his son. When her husband’s Western wife shows up on her doorstep, she discovers that he did return safely from space, just not to her, and with that notion sinking in, she decides to take her own life. In a grandiose gesture of sorrow, Madame Butterfly commits suicide, with her fellow geishas sitting in as Cleopatra’s handmaidens (or slave girls, depending on the Victorian-era portrait) and a quick knife slit to the throat instead of an asp to the bosom. All in all, the film attempts to live up to the melodramatic beauty of its source material, but falls short with over-the-top, though visually stunning, sequences that blend the operatic with the modern and operatic qualities to an inadvertently comic effect (her baby being born visually linked to the astronaut father floating in space, both bound by cords).
Written and directed by the Austin-based Zellner brothers, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter showcases all that is lovely about independent cinema: an unusual blend (Japanese woman seeks treasure in North Dakota) of familiar themes (a soul-crushingly cooped up city apartment, a foolhardy journey, an iconic film) which leads to that unpredictable, warm feeling in your chest when you know that you’ve just watched a great movie. We are introduced to Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) as one of many women at a Tokyo office, fetching tea and laundry for a male boss while not quite fitting in with her younger, marriage-seeking co-workers. Taking the Coen brothers’ Fargo as fact (or at least the part about the money buried by Steve Buscemi), she plans her escape to North Dakota and calculates the exact location of that snow-buried treasure. Sneaking off with the company credit card and leaving behind her beloved pet rabbit Bunzo, she makes her way to the United States and to Fargo, North Dakota. During her odyssey (a really fun thematic allusion to the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre), Kumiko stumbles onto a cinematically worthy adventure with her hand-stitched map in hand, varying makeshift outerwear (going from a Red Riding Hood red sweatshirt to a makeshift hotel comforter poncho), and befuddled witnessing bystanders (including a forthright Midwestern woman who plays hostess to Kumiko and a plausible though plodding, ultimately unfulfilled romantic interest). In the face of bewildered looks (Kumiko is adorable, but barely speaks English) and repeated exasperated reminders that Fargo is a fictional movie, Kumiko continues to trudge along, following following her rationally-calculated map to a seemingly impossible dream. In an attempt to not spoil the ending, let’s just say that I prefer this film’s final allusion to that of The Girl From Nagasaki.
Rather than trying to construct an elaborate, theme-involved conclusion (don’t marry a stranger, bigger risk means bigger reward, something about Don Quixote vs. Madame Butterfly), I’ll leave you with writing that your choice between the two depends entirely on your own mood and what you want to get out of a screening. If you want that aforementioned warm feeling in your chest, go see Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. If you want a crunching cold dearth in your stomach, check out The Girl From Nagasaki. Knowing that life is a rollercoaster, in which you want to feel both the highest highs and lowest lows, I’d say hang on to both for your cinematic ride of 2014, courtesy of the programming team at Sundance.