by Ken B.
Have you seen Fargo? In case you haven’t, it’s a movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, a darkly comedic crime drama which takes place in the frigid north-midwest, especially Fargo, North Dakota, obviously. It’s a brilliant film, and you know who else thinks so? Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a twenty-nine year old Tokyoite who works as a kind of office clerk, a low-level job typically reserved for women a few years younger. They usually leave the position once they marry, at maybe twenty-five or so, but Kumiko hasn’t tied the knot with anyone yet. Instead, she keeps to herself, holds a quiet resentment for her boss (Noboyuki Katsubi), and, as I said, really likes Fargo. But she doesn’t like it in terms of a movie – instead, she studies it as a map.
You see, an important aspect of the 1996 film is how Steve Buscemi’s character hides a briefcase full of money in a remote snowbank. The location is near a wire fence, and is marked off with an ice scraper. Kumiko is convinced that this specific place is real, and so is the briefcase full of money. So when the stress of her job and life becomes too much, she sets off abruptly one night for the United States, to claim her treasure, flying from Japan to Minnesota, where she’ll proceed to find a way to North Dakota. This is the setup of a wonderfully unique adventure, aptly titled Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
One of the vital aspects of the story is how director David Zellner, who co-wrote the script with his brother Nathan, never quite states to what degree Kumiko believes the events of the film are real. A straightforward viewing might come back with the conclusion that she is delusional, seen in how she refuses to listen to the repeated warnings of a Minnesota deputy (played by the director himself) that Fargo is just a movie – you know, not real. My guess is that Kumiko is well aware of this, but is suffering something resembling a drastic midlife crisis, despite not yet being thirty.
Her life, she realizes, is inconsequential and dull. The most exciting moments consist of tending to her pet rabbit Bunzo, lunch with an overly perky old friend (Kanako Higashi), and being passive-aggressively berated over the phone by her mother (voice of Yumiko Hioki) for not being married yet. In light of this dire existence, Kumiko decides to throw all caution to the wind and follow a goal that she objectively sets herself, even though it’s outlandish and irrevocably meaningless. Why? Well, we don’t often go to movies to see practical situations depicted.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter looks phenomenal. The cinematographer is Sean Porter, who shows an uncanny ability to create compositions that play with light and surroundings, with Kumiko’s red jacket often being the most vivid object in the frame. Zellner develops a solid visual rhythm, frequently allowing shots to linger on for a few seconds longer than they should, igniting that uncertain, uncomfortable headspace that our main character occupies. Speaking of the protagonist, Rinko Kikuchi, who first received major Western attention in Babel, and more recently in Pacific Rim, is simply great in the lead role. As Kumiko, she brings to life a seemingly unstructured aim towards a very specific goal. In the second half of the film, after arriving in the U.S., Kumiko only speaks occasionally, in severely broken English – “I want to go… Fargo”, she says a lot – yet Kikuchi’s grasp on nonverbal emoting and body language ensure that the character remains clearly visible, be it in a scene by herself, or with one of several locals she meets throughout her journey.
Some of this is lessened, however, by how thinly the Zellners tend to write Kumiko as a character. Certainly, there are ways in which this turns into an asset on the film’s side, but towards the end of the film, she acts in increasingly bizarre and drastic ways, and with little explanation or foresight, and thus, less of a reason for us to want to comprehend and understand them. It’s an obstacle that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is never able to collectively overcome, and despite an abstract, powerful ending that invokes both smiles and sadness, the lack of articulation regarding Kumiko impedes more than it assists.
But otherwise, this is 104 minutes of very good, very original stuff. However, as with most things deemed “very original stuff”, many audiences may not appreciate it. That’s not a problem on the movie’s fault, and it can even be a sign that Zellner refused to have his vision compromised for a more mass-market, dumbed down version. But I have a strong feeling that a fair number of viewers will be confused or irritated by the sheer deadpan wackiness of the plot and how it evolves, or the inexplicable actions of its main character, which I just admitted irked me sometimes. That’s to be expected, although for open-minded and curious viewers, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter represents something fascinating and new, taking elements of the meta-movie, the psychological drama, and the road trip genre, combining it into a narrative both triumphant and tragic.