In Tokyo, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is confined daily by her depressingly anti-social life. She’s stuck working a dead-end job for a condescending boss, her much more sociable peers constantly intimidate her, and to make matters worse, she’s always being put down by her nagging mother.
Yet once in solitude, she finds a little bit of joy to cling to with a beat up VHS copy of Fargo she discovered. But this goes beyond just an appreciation for the Coen brothers masterpiece; she becomes obsessed with the film, believing it to be a documentary and that the satchel of money buried in the snow near the end of the film is actually real and waiting to be found by her in Fargo, North Dakota.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is based on an urban legend surrounding a Japanese woman by the name of Takako Konishi who was found dead in between Minneapolis and Fargo. What actually happened was Konishi suffered from depression after losing her job, and traveled to Minneapolis since it was a place she had visited with a former American lover of hers. She later committed suicide with an overdose of alcohol and pills; however, due to some misunderstanding caused by the communication barrier between her and the Bismarck police, it was somehow believed that she was searching for the money Steve Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter buried in the Coen brothers film Fargo. Naturally, the media ate the story up and inflated the hell out of it.
Owing a debt of gratitude to the Coens and the Alexander Payne (who served as an executive producer here) film Nebraska, Kumiko does have an ever so slightly disturbing tone to it. But it’s nowhere as dark and heartbreaking as the real life story it’s based on – which is pretty much a Japanese Leaving Las Vegas – with director David Zellner (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Nathan) setting his fantastical, Don Quixote-esque story around the Fargo-centric myth behind the true events, a narrative that better fits the bleakly whimsical though ultimately uplifting tone and style of this film.
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to realize Kumiko is dealing with depression or some other form of mental illness as she goes about her mundane life, but Zellner isn’t interested in declaring a clear-cut diagnosis of his central character. With the lines between what’s real and what’s fantasy often blurring each other, the viewers are mostly left to decide for themselves whether she’s truly disturbed with delusions of grandeur, simply in denial, or nothing more than a purpose-driven yet very naive woman on a mission. Zellner embraces the absurdity of Kumiko and her story with a few moments of effective levity, but never once comes off as flippant or mean-spirited about whatever condition may or may not be ailing her.
Visually, Zellner paints an eery, dreamlike landscape that complements the traits of Kumiko quite well. Sean Porter’s breathtaking widescreen cinematography (particularly during the final 15 minutes) and The Octopus Project’s score are just as cold, isolated and emotionally disconnected as their title character.
Yet amidst the striking production details, there’s a somewhat understated approach to it all that allows for Rinko Kikuchi to standout as the centerpiece of the whole film. Although various characters pop up during her quest (including David Zellner as a sweet, well-meaning Minnesota cop trying his best to help Kumiko), this is Kumiko’s story, and Kikuchi is absolutely mesmerizing here. Persistent to a fault, yet ultimately sympathetic in spite of her stubbornness, it’s hard to imagine an actress lacking Kikuchi’s versatility not turning Kumiko into a melodramatic caricature, but Kikuchi brings much depth to the role. Almost similar to her Oscar-nominated turn as the rebellious deaf teenager in Inarritu’s Babel, Kikuchi barely utters a word, yet manages to say so much more than words could express with just an expression.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter may prove to be too quirky and peculiar for average mainstream audiences. To be sure, this film is plenty bizarre, but it’s equally engaging by way of its beautiful cinematography and powerfully touching performance from Rinko Kikuchi who anchors this haunting, fable-like story of both tragedy and hope effortlessly, balancing the sadness and absurdity of her character with a touch of humor and endearingly dogged determination.
I give Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter an A- (★★★½).