Cinematic Releases: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Here's our review of the little seen film, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

"Before I killed Kenny, I stole
his comfy jacket."
The climactic scene of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 darkly comic neo-noir hybrid Fargo depicting actor Steve Buscemi burying a briefcase full of money on the side of a snow covered highway is of course fake Hollywood movie magic.  Try telling that to Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), the eccentric and withdrawn young Japanese woman of Nathan and David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, who stumbles upon a used VHS copy of Fargo and convinces herself the footage is real and then embarks on an international journey to find the briefcase. 

Produced by director Alexander Payne, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is loosely based on a true story of Takako Konishi who attempted the title character’s sojourn.  While the facts point to depression and jilted love as the real reason behind her worldwide trip, the Zellners’ film focuses instead on the urban legend of treasure hunting and more or less follows the same trajectory Konishi traveled with some surprising and clever embellishments of the truth. 

Much like Fargo, Kumiko regards the bizarre scenario without judgment and manages to elicit a degree of compassion and humor towards its single-minded and tragically confused subject. From the opening widescreen panoramas of a lonely Tokyo reef as the titles creep onscreen beset by increasingly loud ambient howls of music by The Octopus Project, Kumiko announces itself as difficult to define as its central heroine.  Leading a mundane life of solitude outside of a pet rabbit for company, Kumiko’s existence consists of performing office work before returning to her apartment to resume obsessing over the scene of Buscemi and the briefcase, right down to hand-tracing shots and working out mathematical equations pertaining to the dimensionality of the location.  The story itself wouldn’t work half as well were it not for Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi, who imbues the peculiar figure with conviction and desperate determination.  Kumiko could well have been played as a freak, but Kikuchi’s portrait invites sympathy for the woman and we find ourselves hoping she’ll find whatever she thinks she’s looking for. 

"Oh so sorry, silly rabbit.
I will now set you free into a pot
made for soup!"
As much of an investigation of the incident surrounding Konishi as well as a mythological treatment of the urban legend far stranger than anything in fiction, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a quiet and at times charming gem of a movie intent on keeping the strange folktale alive.  While a much more down to Earth documentary named This is a True Story would present all the unfettered facts, Kumiko isn’t so interested in precisely what happened as it is in seeing its subject in the act of her fruitless search.  The topic itself might be purely anecdotal, but Rinko Kikuchi and the Zellners have pulled off an unusual feat in turning out a highly cinematic treatment of what could have been another random strange story you scrolled across on the internet.  

Kumiko could have gone down the route of ridicule and scorn towards the subject, but instead takes the protagonist’s point of view and becomes a haunting character study.  Among the numerous dumbfounded Americans she comes into contact with, a police officer remarks he wants to help her but doesn’t know how given the indisputable facts she continues to deny to herself.  If you yourself came across the lunatic yet beguiling Kumiko and learned of her fantastical goal, you’d be hard pressed to not want to extend a helping hand also.

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-Andrew Kotwicki