As cinematic provenances go, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has a fairly tortured one.
A “true story” based on an urban legend based on events that took place in Minnesota in 2001, the film follows the misguided adventurers of the eponymous Kumiko (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi), an office drone in Tokyo who becomes obsessed with finding the treasure buried at the end of Fargo.
A antisocial loner in a red hoodie, Kumiko’s life is dogged by the menial tasks assigned to her by her boss, a traditionalist executive (Nobuyuki Katsube), and her mother’s nagging phone calls. Resentful of those around her, with only her rabbit Bunzo for company – the rabbit is credited by name (it’s that sort of film) – the grainy flickering tape of the Coen Brother’s classic, and the opening scrawl’s promise of authenticity, becomes her only outlet.
Kumiko’s life is one of boredom and frustration and, like the film that inspired it, David Zellner’s film draws from the mundanity of these situations both gentle humor – as in an old man’s matter-of-fact struggles with a too-big map – and horror – Kumiko gazes in the unfathomable eyes of a former schoolmate’s child as a coffee machine screams in the background. Ultimately, though, it’s Kumiko’s quixotic quest that forms the focus of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
At best, “in a world of her own”, at worst, outright delusional, Kumiko’s croakiness, sullenness, petulance, lack of gratitude, and single-minded fixation to the detriment of all, else becomes wearying; we’re denied even the faculty to laugh at her. Just as characters wander off screen only to return to the fixed camera – the film’s biggest laugh is a visual one – Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter leaves itself nowhere to go.
Throughout the film, however, is the unspoken idea of narrative, the things we believe (or mis-believe): the lonely older woman (Shirley Verand) whose only knowledge of Japan comes courtesy of James Clavell’s Shogun (book or miniseries); the kindly cop (Nathan Zellner) who misguidedly seeks out a Chinese restaurant to try and bridge the language barrier between him and Kumiko.
With its idiosyncratic mise-en-scene – a figure in a hotel duvet wandering through a snowy landscape – and often incongruously cheery soundtrack, courtesy of Texan indietronica band The Octopus Project, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter may well be destined for a narrow type of culthood – strictly for cineastes only.
Refuge in fantasy may be possible but this isn’t the film to seek for it in.