Directed by: David Zellner
Premise: A Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) discovers a copy of the movie Fargo and believes that it contains clues to the location of a hidden case of money.
What Works: In 2001 a story circulated throughout the internet and on some news services that a woman traveled from Japan to Minnesota and froze to death in the snow while searching for the briefcase of money hidden at the end of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo. This turned out to be false but the urban legend has persisted and filmmaker David Zellner has turned it into the film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Zellner and his cast and crew have succeed in turning this outlandish premise into a credible movie by maintaining a delicate tone. The basis of Kumiko is absurd but the filmmakers are able to make it convincing with a straightforward style. The events of the story playout very deliberately, even mundanely, so that Kumiko’s quest is believable. The first half of Kumiko takes place in Tokyo where the title character works as an office girl and is ground down by her job and by pressure from her mother to either get married or fully commit to a lucrative career. Kumiko’s life is devoid of happiness or passion and the filmmakers convey that with the movie’s cold color palate and camera setups that suggest remoteness. That coldness becomes literal as Kumiko travels to Minnesota in the middle of winter. One of the interesting aspects in the second half of the picture is the way in which the filmmakers invoke some of the locations and visuals of Fargo. While the movie Fargo was not filmed in or around the city after which it is named, the filmmakers use Minnesota locations to suggest the Coen Brothers’ film and make some ironic parallels. That is one of the most interesting aspects of this movie. Kumiko is partly about our expectations about life and the way people suspend their better judgement to entertain hopeful delusions. Like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is about someone who wants a better life and has convinced herself that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow just for her. The movie succeeds in large part because of the performance of Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko. It is a careful and restrained performance but there is also a desperation and hope just beneath Kumiko that makes this movie about much more than a silly urban legend.
What Doesn’t: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter treads the boundary between mainstream entertainment and art films. The movie has a basic quest-driven narrative structure and the story is told in a relatively straightforward way but Kumiko is also frequently cold and eccentric. For that reason, Kumiko will probably engage the art house crowd but its appeal is going to drop off sharply among more mainstream audiences. The film has shades of Don Quixote in that its title character has lost the ability to discern between fantasy and reality but the filmmakers of Kumiko don’t have as much fun with the concept as might be expected. The premise of Kumiko suggests that it would be a very silly movie but the picture is overall quite serious and at times a little too solemn. The self-seriousness of Kumiko is a product of the way it’s been made; the only way to make this urban legend into a credible movie is to play it straight. But the picture would have benefitted from just a little more humor. Unlike Don Quixote, Kumiko is not as engaging of a character and this becomes a problem for the movie because it is inherently frustrating to watch. As viewers we know that Kumiko’s journey is an act of folly. But since it’s not played for laughs the moviemakers must allow us deeper insights into her motives to understand the personal stakes of her quest. The remote feel of the film makes this empathy difficult to achieve.
Bottom Line: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is frequently bizarre but it is also a smart and original movie highlighted by Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as a desperate woman lost in her own delusions.
Episode: #534 (March 22, 2015)