‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ plays beautifully in an unreal space

kumiko_posterKumiko, The Treasure Hunter
USA, 2015
Written by David and Nathan Zellner
Directed by David Zellner

Once upon a time, there was a Japanese woman who watched the movie Fargo. The movie begins with a title card pronouncing, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY,” and the fact that the Coen Brothers were playing a little prank with that statement was covered in American media only. So it came to pass that the woman believed the film to be true, and carried her belief to such a degree that she travelled to Minnesota alone, in search of the ransom money hidden by the Steve Buscemi character near the end of the film.

That preceding paragraph is an urban legend, birthed as a result of a real Japanese woman’s odd journey to Minnesota for reasons unrelated to Fargo or the Coen Brothers, and was later exaggerated into an Internet fairy tale (this person’s journey was also told as a documentary, This Is A True Story). When directors David and Nathan Zellner decided to take on that story, they were inspired by the unrealness of it all: a fake story, about a real person who believed a movie to be real, because said movie lied about being real. The Zellners’ interpretation of the tale is the fine new indie drama Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which plays about magnificently in the unreal spaces that we create for ourselves.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel and Pacific Rim fame) is an “office girl” at a Tokyo corporation. Basically, she’s a secretary-slash-cubicle drone, but the term “office girl” also implies that she should find something else to do – either a different career or a marriage – before she becomes a woman. That’s where Kumiko struggles: she doesn’t want to be that girl or that woman, and would prefer to live in the world inspired by her prize possession: a beat-up VHS tape of Fargo. Soon she’s ditching work to search for the fictional ransom money, with only a handful of English words in her vocabulary.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter aspires to be a comedy of melancholy (melanchomedy?) on a level that few films, even independent films, ever try anymore. No, the story of the girl addicted to Fargo isn’t true, but if it were, this movie imagines both a Japan and an America where everyone is telling themselves similar stories just to liven up existence. Once Kumiko makes it to the Twin Cities, the first people she talks to are a pair of goofy religious recruiters, and the symbolism in unmistakable: they would like her to be saved by Jesus, she prefers Buscemi, and there isn’t much difference between the two. It might sound like the prescription for a quirky indie comedy, but the Zellners play up the deadly serious cold of Minnesota in January until it leaves no room for whimsy.

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It’s no secret that Rinko Kikuchi is a great actress; her Academy Award nomination for Babel was well-deserved. But this film (which Kikuchi also produced) shows off her talents to an even greater level, because Kumiko is such a difficult role to get right. The character could be mentally ill, or not; could be acting out of spite toward the cubicle world she lives in, or not; could hate the mother who is constantly harassing her over the phone, or not. Kikuchi can’t simply play it vague, but instead she has to suggest that any or all of those things could be in play at any given time. In the hands of a bad actress, this story could become your classic idiot plot, where it looks like all Kumiko needs is someone to tell her, “hey, that Fargo movie ain’t real!” Instead, we get a fully realized character who is in denial of reality, because she’s found something much more appealing. We could tell her that Fargo isn’t real — minimal spoiler, someone eventually does — but even if it were real, her problems with the real world wouldn’t be solved.

The final touch is the cinematography by Sean Porter. Fargo itself did little to glamorize the experience of living in Minnesota, so the Zellners and Porter faced the unenviable task of making Fargo appear to be perfection compared to the real thing. In the same way that Kumiko finds her perfect life by way of a technology as absurdly obsolete as videotape, Porter scavenges scenes of uncommon beauty out of such places as motel parking lots and the shoulder of the Minnesota interstate. There’s a grunginess to these places, almost as if the audience were watching Kumiko’s adventures on their own beat-up VHS tape, yet the white snow and Kumiko’s jet-black hair pop against the gunmetal-gray sky in the way that only movies in the HD era can.

In the end, Kumiko’s journey goes to a place which is as beautiful as any shot in Fargo, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for her. Where Fargo stripped human nature bare and raw, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter dresses itself up in the sort of fantasy that one might find on a 20-year-old videotape and finds the result to be equally irrational and dangerous. Kumiko spites her office lifestyle and runs off to the West with all the ease of a Facebook post urging people to “live your dreams,” but whether she finds anything worth living for is a question all of us can ponder.

-Mark Young

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