Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

May 2, 2015
Rinko Kikuchi in 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' (2014)
Rinko Kikuchi in 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' (2014)

To get the most out of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter it helps to have seen Fargo – the Coen brothers’ movie of 1996, not the TV series. One of the loose ends in that film was a briefcase full of money left buried in the snow by a hapless Steve Buscemi. As the credits roll it’s still waiting to be claimed.

That abandoned case becomes an obsession for Kumiko, a Tokyo office lady who sees it as the pot of gold that will release her from a monotonous life. There’s no point in suggesting to Kumiko that the film is fiction and the suitcase doesn’t exist. After all, the titles at the beginning of Fargo announce: “This is a true story”. Kumiko has such a burning need for the stash to be real that she cannot entertain any doubts. To seek out her treasure she will make herself into a fugitive, travel to distant Minnesota, pit herself against humanity and the elements.

Yes, Kumiko is deeply disturbed, but we follow her adventures in a state of suspended disbelief. It all seems vaguely possible, even logical. We are drawn into the character’s fantasy to the point where we find ourselves sharing her determination to reach the goal. Her quest becomes a modern fairy tale, with good and bad spirits, a cast of villains and guardians. “I am like a Spanish conquistador,” she says.

For filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner, this film feels like a love letter to Joel and Ethan Coen. “Look,” it says. “We can make a film that’s just as weird as yours.” The only thing missing is the comedic violence that has become a trademark for the Coens. Fargo was positively dripping in blood but PG-rated Kumiko is free of casualties. There are also echoes of David Lynch’s zombiefied visions of suburban USA, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) with its demented, wandering patriarch. Payne is listed as one of the producers of Kumiko, along with the lead, Rinko Kikuchi.

Kikuchi is famous as the only Japanese actress in the past 50 years to be nominated for an Academy Award – for her role in Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). This did not mean she became a big star in her homeland. It’s said that the nude scene in Babel alienated mainstream Japanese audiences, but she also seems to have a personality that doesn’t satisfy the local media template. Perhaps Kikuchi could identify with Kumiko, a terminal outsider who can’t fit in at work, and has no friends apart from her pet rabbit. Kumiko’s only lengthy conversations are with her mother on the phone, who keeps asking if she’s been promoted yet, or if she has a boyfriend.

Kumiko is the rare non-conformist in a highly regimented society. She practises small acts of revenge, such as spitting in her boss’ tea-cup, but she knows she must escape this existence or be asphyxiated by it.

When the boss asks her to take the company credit card and choose a present for his wife, Kumiko buys herself an air ticket to mid-western America. Upon arrival in Minneapolis she begins her odyssey to the border of North Dakota, at first by bus, then on foot.

This is another ‘Lost in Translation’ story, as Kumiko understands very little English and the well-meaning folks of Minnesota can’t even tell the difference between Japanese and Chinese. Kumiko is so unworldly, so dissociated, she doesn’t think about the need for money or warm clothing. Her only idea is to reach the buried treasure. The fast-falling snow acts as a sign of her own blindness – a piece of symbolism that always makes me think of Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), but it’s almost a cinematic cliché nowadays.

Kumiko is assisted by an old lady (Shirley Venard), who picks her up from the side of the road; and by a kind, mild-mannered patrolman, played by director, David Zellner. This is another nod towards Fargo, in which Frances McDormand played Marge, the pregnant police officer with a heart of gold.

A more oblique reading of this movie is that it tells the story of a woman who strives to cross the boundary that separates reality from filmic reality. It’s not accidental that one of the characters who helps her on her way is played by the director, while she is given directions at the airport by his brother and co-scriptwriter, Nathan.

The story was based on an urban legend, another zone in which fiction and reality become intertwined.

Kumiko is an arthouse movie that will appeal to a mainstream audience, largely because of the care taken to establish the mundane, claustrophobic details of the protagonist’s life in Tokyo. Her journey to America seems all the more plausible because of this foundation, although the movie retains an air of unreality as events are filtered through Kumiko’s consciousness. The Zellners’ approach is muted rather than dramatic. It’s a methodical study of a world seen through a distorted mirror, where the heroine wears a bedspread and madness wears a cloak of normality.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Directed by David Zellner
Written by David & Nathan Zellner
Starring Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, Kanako Higashi, Nathan Zellner
USA, rated G, 105 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd May, 2015.

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