Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter Review | Can't Stop the Movies
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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2015)

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Convinced the 1996 classic Fargo is a true story, Kumiko travels to the U.S. in search of the suitcase full of money buried at the end of the film. Rinko Kikuchi brings significant depth to the character of Kumiko, who may or may not be cultivating her own delusion in an attempt to avoid a socially imposed sense of failure and disappointment. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is available to watch now on Amazon and other streaming services.

Kumiko combinedKumiko, the Treasure Hunter has so much potential in its basic concept that it's surprising the resulting film is so flat. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a young Japanese woman who becomes convinced that Fargo is a true story, and that the suitcase full of money Steve Buscemi's character buries in that movie is still waiting to be uncovered somewhere in North Dakota. This is all (loosely) inspired by an incident in 2001 in which a young woman named Takako Konishi was found dead in a field in Minnesota. A police officer who spoke to her before she died made an off-handed remark connecting a crude map she'd been carrying to the movie Fargo, and soon the media began reporting that she had taken the film to be fact, and was in the U.S. looking for the stolen Fargo money. An urban legend was formed. We haven't gotten to the movie yet—this actually happened.

With this knowledge, the first shot of Kumiko takes on a state of meta squared: the opening text of Fargo crosses the screen—“This is a true story”—now obscured by VHS tracking lines and static, in a wink back to the predominant form of mass-consumed visual media of the day. The joke of Fargo is of course that it's not in fact a true story, and the opening text is famously untrue—it's there not so much to mislead as to situate the story within a genre and its established conventions (the American “true crime” film). But here the film as a cultural artifact gains its importance only because it's (erroneously assumed to be) true. That Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes its basic concept from an urban legend generated by a distortion and misrepresentation of real events takes the appropriation to a different level, and would seem to comment on our willingness to believe and accept media messages.

We never learn where Kumiko's obsession with the movie came from or why a functional adult would believe, in 2015, that they could travel to the U.S. to find actual treasure hidden in a film. Both her boss and her mother may argue with the “functional adult” classification, as they repeatedly shame her for not being married and/or further along in her career. When her mother hears that she disappeared without warning to the U.S., Kumiko tries to convince her that some of her coworkers are jealous and playing a trick on her—her mother responds, “what do they have to be jealous of?”

Kumiko on the side of the road

Rinko Kikuchi plays Kumiko at arm's length, so we never quite get a full view of the inner torment that propels her actions.

Rinko Kikuchi made an incredible impression as the young deaf girl (and one of only two high points) in 2006's Babel, and here she is great at generating sympathy for Kumiko. We see cracks in her mostly locked-down, anxious exterior as she goes through each day, confronted constantly with reminders of social and personal expectations she's failed to fulfill—when she gets home and routinely turns on Fargo, fast-forwarding to the scene involving the buried money, we can see reality being pushed firmly away, and it's a credit to Kikuchi's performance that she can keep the audience, too, constantly on the threshold of being let in on Kumiko's inner turmoil.

While part of the narrative mystery may be what happened to create her delusion, there's also the mystery of how we're to take Kumiko as a character, and with her the rest of the movie. Writers and directors David and Nathan Zellner don't seem to know what to do with Kinkuchi's performance, which tows a line between comic aloofness and desperate alienation. There are moments of dry humor that work well, such as a sequence where Kumiko tries to “part paths” with her pet rabbit before she leaves for the U.S., or when on old woman she encounters in Minnesota tries to get her to read James Clavell's Shogun (“It's about Japan!”).

The film is most successful in moments like these, when Kumiko is a character other people and places can reflect off of, often defining their own (sometimes well-intentioned) ignorance. But too many scenes are ultimately concerned with the darker personal implications of Kumiko's delusion, as if the Zellner's couldn't choose between a satire and a character study (which don't need to be as tonally separate as they are here)—and the result is a movie that's strangely uninvolving despite some genuinely great elements.

Kumiko Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox

Sites and images from Fargo are appropriated and peppered throughout.

Take the scene toward the end of the first act, in which Kumiko tries to steal a U.S. atlas from the library in preparation for her trip to Fargo. Asked by the guard “why don't you just make a photocopy, or get it off the internet,” she replies “long ago, Spanish conquistadors learned of untold riches from American Indians. Now I have learned from an American motion picture.” Pushing change and a few bills across the desk as a bribe for the page containing North Dakota's map, she says earnestly, “I only need page 95. It is my destiny.” (This, incidentally, does not explain why she can't make a copy of the map, or get it off the internet.)

This scene is really funny if the movie's taken at the level of an extended joke played straight, and pretty sad and pathetic if it's just one step in the character's slow slog toward a complete mental break. The flaw of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is that the filmmakers want it to be both. In its final act, the movie takes a turn toward a dread-laced fairy tale atmosphere, made possible in no small part by images of snow-covered desolation in the northern Midwest. These scenes are effective on their own, but in the context of the whole movie we don't get to know Kumiko enough for them to play as anything but empty elegy. Even the surreal opening and closing scenes seem like bookends designed to distract us from the lack in the middle.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter posterKumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2015)

Directed by David Zellner.
Screenplay written by David and Nathan Zellner.
Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube and Shirley Venard.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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