Cradled by a delicate and mesmerising performance from Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a darkly comic tale of misadventure – tragic, odd and bizarrely uplifting.
Tokyo Driftby Dave O'Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
When the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir classic Fargo was released in 1996, it boldly claimed to be based on a true story. For a time, the fact and fiction of the story was as indiscernible as the splintered wood and body parts that spewed from the notorious wood chipper. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is loosely based on the true story (no, really) of a Japanese office worker who relied on the Coens’ ‘true story’ and met a ‘Jack Torrance’ style demise in the inhospitable Minnesotan tundra in 2001. The fluidity between reality and delusion is a key component of Nathan and David Zellner’s latest film, it’s a blizzard of contradictions that drags you into the seemingly confused mindset of its protagonist. Kumiko is a 21st century conquistador, a pioneer of the undiscovered country of imagination in her mind. This funny, tragic and bizarre film is a treasure in itself.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a bored office worker whose only escape from her run-of-the-mill job is her imagination. Having discovered an old VHS tape with grainy footage of a suitcase being buried in a snow covered landscape somewhere in North Dakota, she quickly becomes obsessed. Having mistaken the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo for a documentary based on its famous proclamation “This is a true story”, Kumiko decides to leave her mundane life in Tokyo in order to pursue the buried treasure in America. Leaving her rabbit Bunzo to fend for itself, and with scant resources, Kumiko embarks on a surreal adventure into the icy depths of the American Midwest.
A procession of uniformed secretarial staff file in and out of a room with the synchronicity and precision of a military marching band. The exacting nature of this exercise is an early indicator of the asinine existence endured by our protagonist. Her equally bored and dissatisfied boss has little to do but question how many times she’s dipped the bag in his tea. Director David Zellner’s stylised vision of life in Tokyo might take more than a few liberties, but it humorously illustrates Kumiko’s understandable aversion to life. Living alone with her rabbit Bunzo, Kumiko struggles to connect with other humans and is harangued on a daily basis by her meddling mother. Similar to binge-watching your favourite show on Netflix after work every day, Kumiko seeks solace in the grainy mystery she’s discovered on a VHS tape. Kumiko is animated and enthused in the confines of her home, solving a mystery that the audience knows from the get-go is nothing of the sort.
The humour throughout the film is razor-sharp, the Zellners’ script is sprinkled with a smattering of interesting and often bizarre characters. Kumiko as captive audience to an excitable old school ‘friend’ is particularly funny, with Kumiko doing everything in her power to avoid an unimaginably miserable coffee date. When she is Stateside, it’s almost as if the the ‘Minnesota Nice’ characters encountered in Fargo are dropped right in to the film, and while sometimes bordering on self-parody, are colourful distractions on her lonely road to destiny. Of particular note is the director himself, David Zellner as a conscientious police officer who attempts to steer Kumiko away from the fiction she deems reality.
It’s not clear what year we are in until we get a brief glimpse of a periodical dated 2001 in a pharmacy later in the film, but this explains any and all questions you might have as to why she didn’t just use Google Maps. In keeping with the adventure and purity of her conquistador ideals, Kumiko is aided by little else other than a stolen map (the library scene where she steals the map is another highlight of many) and a copy of Fargo on VHS and DVD. It’s in the scenes where the police officer tries to convince her that no such suitcase exists that she is very clearly suffering from delusions. That being said, the language barrier muddies the waters enough for you to think that she simply doesn’t understand what’s being said to her.
There is so much humour in Zellner’s film that as Kumiko’s situation becomes increasingly dire, the sense of desperation and imminent danger is so acute it’s almost unbearable. The irony of feeling as gripped to her fate as this is that everything is telegraphed for Kumiko as soon as she leaves Tokyo. The magic of the Zellner brothers’ script is that despite the sense of futility to Kumiko’s adventure, you can easily buy into the delusion; maybe there is a suitcase packed with stolen money out there. Rinko Kikuchi is mesmerising in the titular role, delivering a nuanced and complex performance. Is Kumiko so naive, delusional or mentally ill that she believes there to be a suitcase of money out there? Or has her malaise with modern life compelled her to embark on her fatal conquest? The answer to that is as elusive as a suitcase in the snow.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is released on 20th Feb 2015 in the UK