Sundance London 2014: ‘Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter’ – atmospheric drama born from Fargo’s urban myth

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter
Written by David and Nathan Zellner
Directed by David Zellner
USA, 2014

One of cinema’s biggest urban myths becomes a key focal point in the new drama by actor/director David Zellner.  Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter centres on the lonely Kumiko (Babel actress Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese OL (Office Lady), who is convinced that the money buried in the film Fargo is real.  Armed with an embroidered map and her boss’s stolen credit card, she ventures to Minnesota to find the treasure buried 18 years ago by Steve Buscemi.

The film is based on another urban myth surrounding a Japanese office worker, Takako Konishi, who was found dead in Minnesota in 2001.  Media coverage of her mysterious death grew into speculation that she had moved to America to find the money in Fargo, when she actually fled to America after falling into a bout of depression and eventually committed suicide by the Detroit Lakes.  She was the subject in the 2003 documentary This is a True Story.

The film is quite moody and makes full use of its surroundings, whether it is in the quiet back streets of Tokyo or the snow-covered fields of Minnesota. Playing with the visuality of locations, it feeds Kumiko’s isolation and despite the good-naturedness of the people she meets in her life, nothing uplifts the tragedy of her doomed quest. Zellner plays on Kikuchi’s sombre performance and filming in both Japan and USA, as well as the screenplay, written by him and his brother Nathan, highlights the cultural differences between the two countries.

Displaying a childlike innocence, Kumiko finds herself under the strain of authority and commitment. From her boss, younger cheery superiors, and her overbearing traditionalist mother, she finds an escape through hunting for treasure. Yet, her old-fashioned methods e.g. using a VCR to examine the location, using an atlas in a library rather than research on the internet, give the impression that she is avoiding things that may shatter the illusion.  Kikuchi plays the protagonist with grim determination, whose quest represents one huge gamble (ironic, considering that she is betting on a satchel of money that doesn’t exist).

Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter borders on fantasy and reality but through its atmospheric narrative and Kikuchi’s powerful performance, it becomes a rare thing in film: a dream that you end up hoping is real.

— Katie Wong

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