Beautiful. That is the first word that springs to mind when reflecting on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a slow, surreal, poignant, blackly comedic road movie that is both disconcerting and delightful. This unusual tale of a lost soul in search of a treasure on the other side of the world is beautifully shot and composed amid the beautiful, if somewhat desolate, winter landscape of Minnesota and the title role is beautifully acted by Rinko Kikuchi (Norwegian Wood), who just happens to be beautiful. It is hard to fathom how an actress as good as Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her outstanding performance in Babel, has since been confined to bit parts in the likes of Pacific Rim. As Kumiko, Kikuchi says little, but she invests the character with a haunted quality that makes her a riveting presence even when she is doing nothing. Directed by David Zellner from a screenplay he wrote with his brother Nathan, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter might infuriate some with its slow pacing and general lack of clarity about many aspects of the story, but the film brings numerous rewards for those looking for something a little offbeat and interesting.
Inspired by an urban legend, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter starts in Japan where Kumiko lives a lonely life in a tiny, cluttered apartment with only her rabbit Bunzo for company. She works in a mundane job as an administrative assistant to a manager who never seems to do anything but drink tea and lecture Kumiko on her personal and professional shortcomings. The minutiae of her miserable existence are fleshed out in considerable, and often hilarious, detail. There is nobody in her life with whom she has any connection and when she finds an old VHS video cassette, her life takes a decidedly different tack. You see, the tape contains the Coen Brothers classic Fargo and, with text at the beginning of the film declaring it to be a true story, Kumiko convinces herself that a suitcase full of money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character is still there, waiting for her or anybody else intrepid enough to seek it out. Thus, she sets off in search of her fortune, utterly clueless about the magnitude of the task. The scenes in Japan shed insight into the social structures that operate with Kumiko under pressure from both her mother – who is a hectoring presence in a series of phone calls – and her boss to marry, albeit for different reasons. Her apartment is claustrophobic, her job is dull and she sees her mission to retrieve the buried treasure as a means of escape.
On her journey, Kumiko encounters a variety of quirky characters, and the deep snow that fills the landscape is just one of many obstacles she must overcome in her quest to reach Fargo. Nothing is easy for Kumiko once she reaches America as she is hamstrung by a lack of money, a lack of English and a refusal to accept the possibility that the fortune she seeks isn’t real. After all, she has nothing else. Other than the religious zealots she meets at the airport upon arrival, those she encounters along the way try to help her, including a kindly policeman played by David Zellner, but Kumiko spurns all of their assistance and refuses to be swayed from her single-minded disposition.
Of course, many fictional films lay claim to being “real events” and Fargo is certainly not the only film to include such a disingenuous opening. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, to a certain extent, looks at how such falsehoods might be misinterpreted by those without the cultural capital to understand the conceit of the filmmakers in presenting the events of their film as real. Of course, the fact that Kumiko is utterly depressed about her state of being only serves to exacerbate her willingness to accept what she sees at face value. Probably not for everyone – the ending will most certainly exasperate some – this is an atmospheric trip with the stunning visuals complemented by a music score courtesy of Texan experimental trio The Octopus Project. With Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellner Brothers have created something that is poignant, puzzling and pretty darn good.