Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
2015, NR, 105 min. Directed by David Zellner. Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 27, 2015
Like a story once heard but not committed to memory, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter unfolds in wispy fragments and memorable images. The original film by the Austin-based Zellner brothers (co-screenwriters, with David directing and Nathan producing) is rare object, unlike your everyday movie. It’s an enchanting work, heartbreaking yet wryly amusing, about Kumiko (Kikuchi), a misguided and possibly deranged Japanese woman who absconds with her boss’ credit card and buys a plane ticket to the U.S. in order to get to Fargo, N.D., to uncover the bag of loot buried in the snow in the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo.
Kumiko’s quest is folly to you and me, but her naive mind thinks there’s no difference between the movie and reality, and she sees herself as a conquistador sailing off to the Americas. Speaking no English (except for a place she enunciates as “Faah-go” while pointing to a spot on her treasure map when strangers stop to inquire after her well-being), and without money (the credit card is canceled once the airfare charge shows up back in Tokyo), Kumiko wraps herself in a blanket and soldiers forward through the snow. Kind but ineffectual strangers attempt to assist her along the way (most notably, David Zellner’s sympathetic policeman, who takes her to a Chinese restaurant hoping to find a Japanese translator). Prior to her departure from Tokyo, scenes of Kumiko at her job and on the phone with her hectoring mother give signs that she is mentally unbalanced, but never more so than while watching her figure out what to do with her pet rabbit Bunzo.
The Zellners’ story was inspired by an urban legend concerning the baffling facts about a real Japanese woman who froze to death in the North Dakota snow, but what the Zellners cling to most are the story’s inexplicable aspects. The film encourages you to view the movie through her experience, but like any good treasure hunt, we’re only provided clues and forced to make any deductions on our own. Kikuchi is magnificent and conveys a wealth of emotions through her facial expressions. The snowy compositions of cinematographer Sean Porter burrow under your skin, and the ethereal soundtrack by the Octopus Project is so effective that it was singled out for a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. In their best work yet, the Zellner brothers have pieced together a truly mystifying human puzzle.
For more background on the urban legend that served as source material and interviews with the Zellners and Kikuchi, see “The Zellners’ Beautiful Dreamer,” March 27.