Film Review: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.57.45Directed by David Zellner

Starring Rinko Kikuchi

Indie director David Zellner teams up with Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) and Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi to tell the remarkable true story of a  lonely Japanese woman who after seeing The Coen Brothers 1996 classic Fargo and believing it to be real, travels to the USA on a treasure hunt for the movies buried loot.

Kumiko lives a sad-sack life in a tiny, messy Tokyo apartment she shares with her pet rabbit ‘Bunzo’. She works a soulless, unfulfilling job as an “OL” (Office Lady) for a Japanese businessman, hounded by her mother and society’s expectations for her, she yearns for something deeper in her life. Kumiko’s wish comes true in a map which leads her to a cave by the beach where she finds an old VHS tape. She plays it to discover that the film is Fargo, and closely examines the scene in which Steve Buscemi buries a cash-stuffed briefcase in the snow alongside a fence in an open field. Suddenly obsessed, convinced that the money is still there for the taking, waiting beneath the Dakota snow for an enterprising treasure hunter to unearth the small fortune and wrest it into reality. What follows is a sort of road movie where Kumiko encounters the kind of quirky, salt of the earth characters you’d find in that famous Coen Brothers film.

What suspends the disbelief at the incredulous naïveté of the movie’s lead character was that it really happened.  The movie is based on one of those crazy little stories buried in the paper, so unlikely and ridiculous that they attain a kind of absurd magnificence in the retelling. “Cult film sparked hunt for a fortune,” was the small headline that attracted Zellner’s attention in December 2001.

Zellner turns this absurdist premise into a twee artsy Indie comedy. The real Kumiko, actually called Takako Konishi, according to the police officer who encountered her, had a rudimentary map marked with a road and a tree. Zellner’s Kumiko follows a treasure map that she sewed beautifully on white cloth.

It’s easy to see why director Alexander Payne would executive produce this unusual and offbeat road trip film replete with expressionless deadpan humour and a quirky, forlorn protagonist because it’s very much in the ball park of his film Nebraska. Moody, melancholic & cinematic, this film and its weirdness are fastened together nicely by a terrific, mostly silent performance by Kikuchi. Cinematographer Sean Porter pulls off the feat of shooting two films: the crowded futurama of Tokyo in the first half and the second, set in a hauntingly beautiful wintry American wonderland.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, like its protagonist, walks the tight rope between whimsy and madness, doggedly pursuing an end goal we know to be fruitless but we watch on to see how she handles her inevitable disappointment. It’s a tricky story to bring to a satisfying close, but Zellner pulls it off impressively well, without violating the integrity of his main character — an ending that doesn’t rob the story of its endearing charm and innocence.

4/5

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