Review: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

“This is a true story” reports Fargo at it’s very beginning; an untruth that spun out into the world back in 1996 like so much yarn tumbling down the stairs and is still cascading into today’s cinemas, thanks to this wonderful little film from David Zellner. The image of the Coens’ smirking disclaimer opens Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, albeit degraded on distressed videotape. It’s a VHS copy of the movie unearthed by the titular Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) at the beach, following the directions of a homemade treasure map. Thus begins a patient, quirky, yet utterly beguiling little fable; a love letter to a well-told tale as much as it’s parent movie is, while also capturing universal themes of self-validation.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter was inspired by the urban legend of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who was found dead in Minnesota in 2001. Though the cause of death was suicide, a rumour quickly swelled that she had in fact died of misadventure while looking for the suitcase filled with money that Steve Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter buries by the side of the road in the Coens’ Fargo. Truth and fiction mingling once more. Where one ends and the other begins is one of the main concerns of Zellner’s film, which is joyfully playful with moving the line between the two.

The film splits approximately fifty-fifty between Japan and the US. We begin in Tokyo, as Zellner invites us into the interior world of Kumiko. She lives in a boxy apartment with her adorable pet rabbit Bunzo, has an office job that she’s honestly pretty bad at, feels the pressure of disappointment from stilted telephone calls with her mother. She’s a person who is accustomed to solitude, finding unnecessary social interaction to be a nuisance. She’d appear callous or diffident if it weren’t for the unique charm of her meticulous world of self-deception. It’s not exactly pity that’s evoked per se, perhaps there’s even an element of envy for her childlike ability to live in her own amended version of reality. She identifies with the trailblazing spirit of Spanish Conquistadors. While there’s a definite element of mental illness to this fantasy, it’s also the prime characteristic that encourages us to follow her.

Having discerned from her damaged videotape that there’s a large sum of money buried somewhere in the Minnesota snow, Kumiko begins the rituals that precede one of her treasure hunts; gathering information (a funny sequence at a library that keys us in on her opportunistic nature, something she’ll rely on later), embroidering herself a map having traced an outline of a barbed wire fence on her television. It all seems like harmless fantasy until her employer entrusts her with the business credit card. Cut to ‘The New World’ (a wry subtitle very much indicative of Zellner and his brother Nathan’s sharp screenplay), and Kumiko has propelled herself across an ocean to fulfill her destiny. Suddenly this flight of fancy seems more serious. Kikuchi (who is marvelous here) evokes incredible empathy for Kumiko. Her conviction that this case of fictitious money will somehow be the deus ex machina for all her problems is steadfast and unshakable. In the audience we start to worry that she’s putting herself in real danger.

The US scenes evoke the spirit of Alexander Payne, justifiably so as he is credited here as a producer. It’s there in the everyday joviality of the locals and the glint-in-the-eye observational humour. This is, of course, one of the prime characteristics of Fargo also, and Kumiko hits an extended high when a bumbling sheriff’s deputy named Caldwell (also Zellner) takes pity on Kumiko and offers to help her out. It almost becomes a buddy-movie, but once again Zellner muddies the waters of what’s expected of movie conventions, mutating the story in other directions. The pacing is more indicative of Payne’s work also. Some might find Kumiko simply too slow and precious, but acclimatise to its rhythms and there’s a lot to enjoy here, especially in Sean Porter’s understated photography.

As Kumiko is often stoic in her approach to the world around her it’s a credit to Kikuchi that she evokes so much warmth. One key bolster to not just her performance (which is masterfully restrained), but to the film at large, is the engaging score by The Octopus Project. Kumiko seesaws from the sedate or even silent to the  positively raucous. There are escalating drones here, pitted judiciously throughout the movie,  which underscore Kumiko’s fish-out-of-water tentativeness, evoking the enormous self-doubt of a lonesome figure in an alien environment. Elsewhere the music openly recalls Carter Burwell’s own compositions for Fargo, answering some of the key arrangements like some kind of call-and-response.

Ultimately, Kumiko works in tandem with Fargo in a strange way. It invites the viewer to invest in something that is knowingly false, and at the end plays a trump card – one akin to the clever self-referential finale of Adaptation – asking the audience to accept and believe in the lie, just as Kumiko does. It’s a great addition to an already supremely charming movie. I went into Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter expecting to like it. I wasn’t expecting to love it. But there’s so much on offer here if you allow the movie to persuade you. Funny, sad and wise in equal proportion, you want this film – and Kumiko – to succeed against the odds. At a certain point Zellner confidently addresses this urge with gloriously meta wish-fulfillment. Gifting this tale – the conclusion of which seemed unavoidably bleak – with a bittersweet pang of joy. Ending any other way would’ve been like kicking Bunzo in the face.

Simply put, the film itself is a treasure. Seek it out.

Score:  4.5

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