'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter'
There’s a tragic, strange and often forgotten postscript to the Coen brothers’ masterpiece ‘Fargo’. The filmmakers put a “Based on a True Story” credit at the start of their movie as a wry in-joke. The production was always phony-baloney, but the credit seemed like an amusing wink to offer knowing audiences. Unfortunately, some sad soul believed the myth and died in the farmlands of Minnesota trying to find the fictional briefcase full of money buried in the snow. Another pair of filmmaking siblings, David and Nathan Zellner, have made a peculiar, haunting, funny and moving movie of their own about the real “true story.”
Rinko Kikuchi, who broke hearts in ‘Babel’ and kicked butts in ‘Pacific Rim’, stars as the lonely Japanese girl of the title. Kumiko lives a truly sad and isolated life. She has no friends and barely even makes small talk with anyone at her job. The girls there all use the position as a moneymaking timewaster before finding a husband, while Kumiko has no interest in that. Her boss treats her like garbage and her neighbors ignore her. She has no one. Instead of seeking human connection, she spends her time eating ramen noodles in a tiny apartment while endlessly rewatching a damaged VHS tape of ‘Fargo’. She becomes obsessed with the buried bag of money and steals a company credit card to fly over to Minnesota to find it. Once there, Kumiko finds it even harder to connect with anyone. Some of the locals are kind to her (especially a local cop played by director David Zellner), but the language barrier is vast and she refuses to believe any claim that the movie she worships could possibly be fiction. This is not a story that could end well.
Above all else, ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ is a mood piece. The directors have created an almost hypnotically melancholic little movie that walks a fine line between surrealism and naturalism. The filmmakers are both detached observers of Kumiko and craft a movie that could be read as subjectively presented through her cracked perceptions. The film’s tone constantly wavers. At times, it’s quite funny (like when Zellner’s hapless cop takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant hoping for translation from the owner, only to learn that she’s Japanese). At other times, it’s achingly sad and often feels like a dreamlike fable.
Rinko Kikuchi anchors the story through a remarkable central performance. The audience might never be able to figure out exactly what Kumiko is thinking, but Kikuchi is always deep within her character. She plays Kumiko so guarded that it’s hard to ever accurately determine what she’s thinking, yet at the same time you can’t help but empathize with the gut-wrenchingly lost soul. It’s a beautiful piece of acting that the Zellners frame within equally beautifully imagery. They take the almost alien landscapes and surreal Minnesota characters of the Coens’ ‘Fargo’ and push things slightly farther. The strange little word that they’ve created might be the result of Kumiko’s possibly disturbed mental state, or it might actually be how weird this little world actually is. It’s really hard to say (in the best possible sense), right up to and including the hauntingly ambiguous ending.
Some might find ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ frustrating because the Zellners and Kikuchi play their cards so close to the vest. Indeed, the movie is certainly not for audiences who like everything spelled out in boldface and underlined. This isn’t a satisfying film in a conventional sense, but if you can give yourself over to the woozy visuals, the deadpan comedy, and the heartbreaking isolation of the lead character, it’s hard not to get lost in this strange little odyssey and emerge the other side deeply moved.
The Zellners toy with a number of potent ideas like voluntary loneliness, Asian gender repression, the alienation inherent in encountering foreign cultures, and unhealthy personal obsession with pop culture, and transform it all into something resembling a modern fairy tale. It’s certainly the best and most ambitious project that the quirky filmmakers have delivered to date. Anyone seeking an eccentric escape from Hollywood will find a comforting and bizarrely beautiful home with ‘Kumiko’.