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KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER Movie Review – Part Fairy Tale, Part Drama, with Layers of Reality

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, directed by David Zellner and co-written by himself and his brother, Nathan Zellner, is the tale of a lonely, disaffected Japanese woman looking to escape the banality of her life.  Part fairy tale, part drama, part urban legend, the film grapples with Kumiko’s struggle to free herself from her daily routine and to carve out a life for herself away from the expectations of her mother, her boss, and her friends.  The catch? Kumiko isn’t trying to find success in her career or find the right man.  She’s trying to find the bag of money that Steve Buscemi buries in the snow in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film Fargo.  At times heartbreaking, funny, and quirky, Kumiko is a tonally inconsistent fable that (like a lot of Coen films) raises questions about the wisdom of trying to change one’s station in life.

Kumiko, played with a quiet dignity by Rinko Kukuchi (47 Ronin, Pacific Rim), is single, approaching 30, and wants nothing more than to free herself from her entry level job in Tokyo and the oppressive presence of her mother.  Kumiko is different.  Surrounded by people dressed in blacks and grays and dark blues, Kumiko sticks out in her red hoodie which she wears everywhere like a coat of armor.  Everywhere, that is, except her dead end job as an “Office Lady” where her boss pesters her about how strong she makes his tea as well as her relationship status and future plans.  Kumiko’s only escape from this oppressive existence is in her home where she watches an old VHS copy of Fargo which she finds in a cave at the beach in the opening moments of the film.  This discovery is the beginning of a treasure hunt that will take her from Tokyo to Minnesota.

There are several layers of reality at work, both in the text of the film, and in the context the film was created in.  The Coen Brothers infamously began their 1996 neo-noir with the disclaimer, “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.”  In reality, Fargo is at most a highly fictionalized version of several different, unconnected, events that happened all over the country.  The Coens claim, one imagines with their eyes twinkling, that they just stitched these events into one narrative.  Whether or not the Coens were really working from actual events or toying with the audience (or both) is up for debate.

If the story of a Japanese woman, wandering the wilderness of Minnesota looking for the lost money from Fargo sounds familiar, it’s because it really happened. Kind of.  In 2001 a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi made the news.  Through a series of misunderstandings between Konishi and a local police officer, it was believed at the time, and then widely reported by the media, that Konishi was in Minnesota to seek the money buried in Fargo.  Konishi’s story (including why she was really in Minnesota) was later recounted in the documentary This is a True Story by filmmaker Paul Berczeller.

In addition to this layer of extra textual backstory, the film itself also toys with its own reality.  The first moment of the film shows the original true story disclaimer at the beginning of Fargo, but this footage from the movie is warped and distorted by tracking lines that had me unconsciously reaching for a remote, a reflex left over from the days before automatic tracking was a feature of most VCRs.  This is followed by the opening scene of the film which finds Kumiko referencing what looks like a treasure map while walking along a beach.  It is this treasure map that leads her to a cave where she overturns a rock and unearths a VHS copy of Fargo.  This plays out like the opening of a fairy tale or adventure story, but definitely not a story out of reality.

The film then follows Kumiko as she toils in her environment in Japan and ultimately flees to Minnesota to look for the money.  The real highlight of the film is Rinko Kukuchi’s performance.  She plays Kumiko as a quiet, determined and naïve soul who just wants to break out of her monotonous existence, refusing to give up even as the reality she desperately believes in begins to unravel.  The director, David Zellner, also shines in a small role as the Minnesota police officer that Kumiko runs into during her quest.  His performance as a good natured man who just wants to help is sympathetic and natural.

Tonally the film is all over the place.  It lingers a bit too long on Kumiko’s life in Japan, miring the first act in a dreary environment that both Kumiko and the audience both want to escape.  That, perhaps, is the point, but it’s a shame as the film really picks up when Kumiko leaves for Minnesota.  Once Kumiko begins her journey the film really starts to shift between character study, fable, and Coen-esque tale.  This shifting around is both a feature of the film and a weakness.  While the film occasionally gives the audience insight into the motivations of Kumiko, it doesn’t quite feel like a fully realized character piece, but it almost does.  The film’s cinematography and score don’t quite turn Kumiko into the heroic figure of a fairy tale, but they almost do.  The characters Kumiko encounters on her journey aren’t quite the quirky characters that Marge Gunderson runs into in Fargo, but they almost are.   It is this tonal shifting that didn’t quite sit right with me as I watched the film, but it almost did.  The shifting tones contribute to the overall experience of colliding realities playing out in the film, but this also leads to an uneven experience.

Overall the film is worthwhile and one I would recommend audiences seek out, especially fans of the Coen Brothers and fans of Rinko Kukuchi.  She is playing a character here markedly different than her turn in Pacific Rim.  The way the film plays with Kumiko’s reality, which is always just a shred away from collapsing, as well as the real life tale of Fargo and Takako Konishi really does feel like a Coen-esque fable whose moral can best be described as, “Do. Not. Seek. The. Treasure.”  But, of course, we always want to seek the treasure.  Or, at least, we want our heroes to seek it out, whether it’s good for them or not.  When the Coen’s are involved, it rarely is.

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Ryan Ferguson

Ryan Ferguson