In 2014, the excellent FX original series Fargo explored the consequences of Steve Buscemi's character burying thousands of dollars in the snow in a universe shared with the Coen Brothers' 1996 film. The Zellner Brothers' Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter touches on the same topic, but their story is ostensibly set in the "real" world: their film, which debuted last year and is getting a limited release this week, follows a 29-year-old girl named Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) who discovers a waterlogged VHS tape of Fargo, believes that movie's opening proclamation that it tells a true story, and ventures from Tokyo to the United States in an attempt to find the money. Beautiful and beguiling, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes us on a quixotic quest toward an unspecified location in the American Midwest that holds much more than the promise of cash: a woman's soul is on the line here, and you can feel her determination with every step.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Co-writer/Director: David Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi
Kumiko lives alone with her pet bunny Bunzo in a crappy Tokyo apartment. She's stuck in a crappy secretary job serving a condescending jerk of a boss, and constantly rebuffing her mother's attempts to get her to move back home. Her mother is demanding and obnoxious, concerned only with the ideas of Kumiko either getting promoted or married, but our heroine isn't interested in either. Once she discovers the VHS of Fargo (in a dream-like opening sequence), she becomes obsessed with her new mission: find the money. She replays the film over and over, taking extensive notes and making her own maps in an effort to nail down the exact location of Buscemi's loot. Finally, she's ready. She abandons Bunzo on the subway (in one of the film's truly sad sequences) before ultimately spitting in her boss's tea, stealing his company credit card, and making a break for the States - or, as the title card indicates when she arrives, "The New World." Kumiko fancies herself like a modern day Spanish conquistador as she searches for her treasure, and she refuses to allow any obstacles to prevent her from reaching her goal.
Revealing any more about the actual plot would spoil the ending, which, for me, was basically the only thing I cared about. While everyone can relate to Kumiko's crappy home life and existential desire for getting more out of life, it's substantially more difficult to side with her on this insane quest because the movie never allows us to get inside her head. Does she actually, truly think the money is really going to be there (meaning...she's never seen a movie before and isn't capable of separating fact from fiction?), or is this just a metaphorical trip to prove to herself that she's capable of seeing something through to the end? It's a question the film approaches but doesn't fully answer, which may leave many viewers cold.
Kikuchi is very good as Kumiko, her expressive eyes saying what her mouth often can't; she speaks broken English throughout, and communication barriers are one of the movie's biggest sources of drama and humor. She brings a nice physicality to the role, and you can feel her desperation and determination as she marches onward toward her goal. Director of photography Sean Porter depicts her as a specter of color against stark, snowy Midwestern landscapes, occasionally giving the movie an otherworldy vibe.
But despite the gorgeous visuals, I found the film itself to be a little hollow. Either I didn't fully understand the message the Zellner Brothers were trying to impart, or there wasn't much of a message to understand in the first place; the ending caught me off guard and left me questioning the point of the whole movie, and I wasn't satisfied with what I came up with. (I don't want to ruin the ending, so I can't delve into this very deeply.) Still, though, the film is definitely a unique experience, and I can think of a few worse ways to spend time than watching an intriguing lead performance and some beautiful cinematography.