This droll and offbeat fish out of water story is actually based on a 2001 urban legend about a Japanese woman who died while trying to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow in the Coen brothers’ classic movie Fargo. That myth has provided the inspiration for this quirky drama from filmmaking siblings David and Nathan Zellner (Goliath, Frontier, etc), who spent the better part of a decade bringing the story to the screen.
The central character here is the downtrodden and painfully shy and introverted office worker Kumiko (played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi (from Babel, Pacific Rim, etc), who styles herself as a sort of treasure hunter on weekends as she forages for hidden gems. One weekend while out hunting she stumbles across a buried old VHS copy of the film Fargo. She takes it home and watches it. When she sees the words “based on a true story” she thinks she is actually watching a documentary. Kumiko sees that the buried cache of money could be a life changing discovery, allowing her to escape her dreary existence.
She watches the crucial scene repeatedly as she tries to pinpoint the exact location of the buried loot, meticulously plotting the site in her notepad. She quickly leaves behind her lowly job, her overbearing mother and what few friends she has to head off for America on a quest to locate the money. She is clearly ill equipped for her mission though, and with her limited grasp of English she finds herself struggling to cope with this strange new world and culture.
Kumiko lives in her own version of reality, and Kikuchi brings a poignant, naive yet somehow endearing quality to her performance in a difficult and layered role. She brings a balance between the humour and the pathos of the character and her futile obsession. There is immediately a sense that Kumiko may even be a little autistic given her obsession and mannerisms, and her delusion leads her to the strange world of America. She meets a number of people along the way, including a bemused but friendly local cop (played by director Zellner himself) who seems to be a male equivalent of the Frances McDormand character from Fargo, with his homespun wisdom and cheery demeanour.
Kumiko The Treasure Hunter unfolds in two distinct chapters, the first set in the exotic world (for us) of Japan, while the second half is set in the exotic world of America (for Kumiko). The contrast between the two unfamiliar settings adds to the unusual and bittersweet tone of the film. Kumiko looks superb though, especially when the setting moves to the snow covered setting of Minnesota. Cinematographer Sean Porter imbues the wintry, snow covered Minnesota landscapes with a sense of menace and unease. Blurring the line between what is real and what is fiction, Kumiko develops a similar feel to Fargo with its laidback and unhurried style, its quirky characters and droll humour.
While it certainly has its offbeat pleasures, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter will not appeal to everybody.
Director: David & Nathan Zellner
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Shirley Venard
DVD and on-demand release: 2 September 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television