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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

The Coen Brothers classic, Fargo, opens with a text card that reads “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” This in spite of the fact that Fargo is clearly a work of fiction, and the Coen Brothers themselves more or less admit as much.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens with the exact same title card, as shown on a scratchy, beat-up VHS copy of Fargo. And then it goes even further, zooming in extra close on the words “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” Even though it totally isn’t.

Kumiko was inspired by the urban legend of Takako Konishi, an office worker who traveled from Tokyo to Minneapolis. She then proceeded to Bismarck, then Fargo, then Detroit Lakes, and then she killed herself. The legend goes that she died while attempting to find the big pile of money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. In truth, Konishi was an office worker who had visited Minnesota while having an affair with a married American businessman. She later decided that the Land of 10,000 Lakes would be the site of her death when severe depression drove her to suicide in November of 2001.

The film’s story kinda splits the difference between these two versions.

Our namesake protagonist (played by Rinko Kikuchi) is an office worker who looks and acts like a textbook case of clinical depression. She can’t look anyone in the eye, she tends to hunch over like she’s willing herself to shrink and disappear, and she seems pathologically incapable of being happy. She doesn’t have any friends, never mind a love life, she has no career ambitions, and she seems to have a serious aversion to talking with others.

Of course, it doesn’t help that her mom, her coworkers, her old acquaintances, and even her boss (Sakagami, played by Nobuyuki Katsube) keep going on about shit that doesn’t remotely interest her. Then again, if Kumiko isn’t interested in getting a promotion, getting married, starting a family, saving money, or how anyone else is getting along, what is she interested in? Two things.

One of them is Bunzo, her adorable pet rabbit. The other is a worn-down VHS copy of Fargo, which she watches obsessively. More specifically, she watches that one scene of Steve Buscemi burying the treasure. She watches it over and over and over again, pausing and rewinding as necessary to write down every last detail of the place where that money is buried.

We never even learn what she plans to do with the cash. She just goes on and on about how she “discovered” this treasure, seemingly oblivious to everyone else who’s ever seen this movie. Hell, she doesn’t even seem to realize that there was a camera crew present to depict the burial on film. For whatever reason, this riddle of finding the treasure’s location has become the only thing that matters to her, creating an emotional attachment that throws logic completely out the window. Seriously, there are times when people try to tell her that Fargo is just a work of fiction, and it’s like trying to convince her that she’s not even awake right now. Every fiber in her being flat-out denies it.

And so Kumiko flies out to America. She has no friends or family in the area, she barely speaks a word of English, her only source of money is a stolen credit card (long story), and she doesn’t have any luggage aside from her treasure maps. Yet she’s still going to Minnesota, traveling 200 miles from Minneapolis to Fargo in search of that fictional cash. And circumstances being what they are, she travels a lot of that distance on foot through the blistering winter snow.

In case it isn’t clear already, Kumiko is not a completely sympathetic protagonist. She makes a lot of stupid choices, she has a nasty habit of driving people away from her, and she does a lot of things that are morally reprehensible to say the least. Yet the film makes it clear that Kumiko isn’t a malicious person. Anytime she does something wrong, it’s because she just wants to be left alone and/or she wants to go after the treasure. She’s not a bad person, just a very sick woman in dire need of heavy-duty psychiatric care. That’s enough to earn the audience’s pity and keep us compelled to know what’s going to happen to her next.

Another potential problem is that Kumiko barely ever talks and she constantly makes an all-consuming effort to make herself invisible. It’s very difficult to get inside the mind of such a character. However, the upshot is that we don’t know what Kumiko will do at any given time. This lends itself equally well to moments of tension (like the scene on the train station) or moments of comedy (like the library incident). This also means extended shots without any dialogue, which could either be seen as atmospheric or as a reflection of Kumiko’s emotional state in the moment, depending on your level of patience. By a similar token, the score (by an indie electronica group called The Octopus Project) is a senseless cacophony that very nicely illustrates the messed-up nature of Kumiko’s headspace.

Then of course we have Rinko Kikuchi herself. Most American audiences probably know her from Pacific Rim and/or Babel, either one of which would be proof enough that she’s a remarkably gifted and highly underrated actor. Though personally, I preferred her sexy, comedic, expressive, and whip-smart turn in The Brothers Bloom.

(Side note: Yes, I realize that she was in 47 Ronin as well, along with every other Japanese actor in Hollywood’s reach, but let’s keep on pretending that film never existed, hm?)

I was very much looking forward to a showcase for Kikuchi’s talents, and she did not disappoint. So much of what makes this character work comes down to Kikuchi’s body language and the magic she can work with nothing but raw emotion. This character would have fallen apart so easily in the hands of a lesser talent, but Kikuchi shows a remarkable talent for eliciting pity from the audience while also showing the occasional glimmer of hidden strength.

Unfortunately, because this narrative is ultimately structured as a road movie, Kumiko is really the only character worth commenting on. The rest of the cast is populated with minor supporting characters (two of whom are played by director David Zellner and his co-writer/brother Nathan Zellner) who only appear briefly before the plot abandons them. For all intents and purposes, the supporting characters can all be lumped into two categories: The Americans and the Japanese.

The thing about the Japanese characters is that they all seem to act like that annoying kind of happy. You know how it is when people are happy and you can’t begrudge them for that, but you still don’t understand how they could be so happy and they look down on you for not being happy? That’s what the Japanese characters are like. No one seems to have any use for Kumiko because she’s so far removed from anything that anyone else expects of her.

Compare that to the Americans, who genuinely seem concerned for Kumiko’s well-being. Though to be fair, she did land in Minnesota — it’s my understanding that the state is full of people who are courteous and charitable to a fault, more like Canada than anywhere else in the lower 48. But I digress. Anyway, the Americans aren’t nearly as interested in forcing Kumiko into any social expectations or gender norms. Yet they still ask that Kumiko give up her insane quest and accept Fargo as a work of fiction, which she simply cannot do. What’s more, communication is extremely difficult because of the language barrier. One character goes looking for a Japanese interpreter in a Chinese restaurant, for God’s sake.

Basically put, the movie seemed to be about a character bouncing from one place to another, unable to find a place where she belongs because she can’t find anyone to communicate with her. So the plot drifts from one location to another, characters weave in and out of the movie, Kumiko commits various petty crimes against them, and the film keeps spinning its wheels. It seemed like a good enough film, but not good enough to get over my general distaste for road movies.

But then the ending happened. And that’s when everything clicked. After 100 minutes of runtime, I finally realized that I had been looking at this all wrong.

The ending makes it abundantly clear that this isn’t just a movie about a woman living with clinical depression. This is a movie about a woman who’s been crushed by the conformist demands of living in a boring, superficial, uncaring world. Thus Kumiko’s madness and her obsession with fantasy is actually her way of escape from the oppressive society that’s worn her down for so long.

In other words, this isn’t just a tribute to a Coen Brothers movie. This is a movie presenting Terry Gilliam-esque ideas with faux Coen Brothers style. And that is a delightfully batshit combination if ever I heard of one.

I’m not absolutely head-over-heels in love with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, but that’s probably only because I’m not very fond of road movies in general. Also, it’s tough to deny that the pacing is wonky — things don’t really pick up until the halfway point and the film is very opaque until it suddenly isn’t. Still, Kikuchi’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, and it’s a neat little Gilliam-esque movie for those filmgoers who wish that Gilliam was a bit more grounded.

The film has a morose yet oddball sensibility that may not appeal to everyone, so I’m hesitant to give it a full recommendation. Moreover, because it’s a limited release, it’s not easy for me to say that it’s worth the time and effort to track down. That said, when a DVD or digital download becomes available, I can totally recommend a rental at the very least. It’s definitely worth seeing once, just to see if it’s your kind of thing.

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