Evocative and hard to shake off, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter stirs up a trove of emotions—including frustration. This deadpan tale of a Japanese woman, who may be mentally disturbed, going on a quest that most assuredly is quixotic, disorients from the start, leaving the viewer on his or her own to determine how seriously to take any of it. Still, the movie’s shortcomings can be forgiven by the utter confidence of the filmmaking, which never questions the strangeness of this odyssey, even when we do.
Kumiko is the latest film from the Zellner brothers (Kid-Thing, Goliath). Directed by David and co-written by David and Nathan, it stars Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, a 29-year-old who’s slowly coming to the end of her rope in Tokyo. Harassed by her mother because she’s not married yet—she doesn’t even have a boyfriend—and miserable working for a callous boss (Nobuyuki Katsube) who informs her she’s getting too old for her “office lady” job, Kumiko escapes nightly into her viewings of a cruddy VHS copy of Fargo. Mistaking the movie for real, she has become obsessed with determining exactly where Steve Buscemi’s character buried his briefcase of cash. Never mind that the Coen brothers’ film actually takes place in Minnesota: Kumiko, friendless and uncommunicative, decides that she must travel to Fargo to claim her treasure from that nondescript snowy field by a fence.
Despite the concrete reality of its setting, Kumiko projects a precious, almost surreal vibe. Shot by Sean Porter, the cinematographer of the equally dream-like It Felt Like Love, Kumiko places us in a dreary urban environment enlivened by the offhand eccentricity of its main character. Her bunny Bunzo her only companion, Kumiko wanders through her days without much purpose, secretly spitting in her boss’s drink as a silent act of defiance while all of her fellow officemates shun her.
Kikuchi, who played largely nonverbal characters in Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brings the same silent-movie quality to Kumiko. All we can tell of her inner life is seen through her eyes, and the actress keeps the character intentionally opaque so that we never know precisely her situation. Does she have developmental problems? Is she going insane, ready to snap at any second? Even Kumiko’s bizarre belief that Fargo holds the key to a fortune is never explained. Kikuchi and the Zellners keep their cards close to their chest, drawing us into the mystery of Kumiko’s malady and story.
Eventually, impoverished Kumiko figures out a way to pay for her trip to America by stealing her boss’s credit card (maybe she’s also seen Psycho). Knowing very little English and quickly discovering that the credit card has been shut off, Kumiko nevertheless insists on making her way to Fargo to find the treasure. Her journey doesn’t bring Kumiko out of her shell, though: Once in America, Kumiko only gets sadder and darker, our protagonist’s general well-being in as much doubt as her mental stability. In beautiful widescreen compositions, with a nervous electronic score from the Octopus Project, the Zellner brothers immerse deeper and deeper into the oddity of their vision. There’s a hypnotic otherness to what we see on the screen, as both Tokyo and Minneapolis are rendered realistically, but at a slightly off-key tonal pitch. It’s very possible we’re seeing the world from Kumiko’s skewed perspective, and the commitment, not to mention skill, with which the Zellners execute that strategy is impressive.
Kumiko clearly sympathizes with its heroine, giving her the tools to escape Tokyo for America and to forge forward even when she’s out of money and unable to find transportation to her final destination. And yet, Kumiko can also be a bit of a stacked deck, the filmmakers sometimes luxuriating in their movie’s precocious strangeness to an indulgent degree. Because Kumiko is so passive, she’s almost comically ineffectual, in essence a Japanese twist on the Cathy comic strip. Rather than building a character, the Zellners and Kikuchi mostly pummel her—Kumiko is practically a walking punching bag—and so there’s a faintly patronizing tone to the portrayal. She’s bright enough to scheme her way to the States but not aware that Fargo isn’t real? Has she never seen a movie before? (Also: At no point did Kumiko decide to ditch the crappy VHS copy and get a DVD of the film?) There’s something to be said for having a complicated, cryptic central character, but occasionally the Zellners seem to be dictating Kumiko’s quirks to maximize the drama and comedy rather than understanding her from the inside-out.
After Kumiko experiences some early misadventures in Minnesota, she meets a concerned cop (David Zellner) who happens upon Kumiko wandering down a snowy road, leading to some of the film’s best sequences. Kumiko perhaps overemphasizes its characters’ lack of connection, but as Kumiko and this cop stumble to find common ground through a language barrier, we discover an emotional delicacy that’s been previously lacking. (Much like Fargo, Kumiko gets too much of a kick mocking Minnesotans and their dopey sweetness.)
Reaching its final stretches, Kumiko redeems some of its shakier moments by methodically building to a most unexpected ending. The Zellners may have their missteps as storytellers, but without question they’re consummate image- and mood-makers. Stubborn and defiant, they’re as single-minded as their hardheaded protagonist, who refuses to listen to anyone along her path insisting that this Fargo hunt is doomed. And like Kumiko, the movie proves the naysayers wrong by sticking to its guns, getting the last laugh and forcing us to rethink everything we’ve seen. Maybe she’s not so crazy after all.
Director: David Zellner
Writers: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner
Release Date: March 18 (New York), March 20 (LA), 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.