“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014)

by A.J. Hakari


The relationship we share with cinema is a most curious kind. Although we approach films fully aware of their inherent artifice, they’re nevertheless granted unfettered access to our emotions, to influence or manipulate however they might. Largely, people can check out from such an experience and carry on with little fuss, yet there remain some — like the heroine of 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter — who find themselves drawn into the throes of obsession. In this story’s case, however, the premise doesn’t involve being taken in by a movie so much as by an idea, a semblance of the fantastic placed upon a pedestal by one whose inner fire has otherwise long since been snuffed out by the status quo. Where other pictures sought to force audience empathy via heightened or contrived dramatic dilemmas, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter instead opts to capture the essence of crushing banality, to chronicle that singular pain that comes from realizing you have no place in the everyday.

For office worker Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), normalcy is a nightmare. What most would describe as common occurrences — dealing with jerk bosses, talking to nosy parents, etc. — only serve to hasten her retreat into an increasingly distant state of being. Her sole means of drowning out the world, however briefly, lies with repeatedly analyzing a junky VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo…or, to be exact, one scene in particular. Convinced that the fortune Steve Buscemi’s character buried in a snowbank is legit, Kumiko devotes herself to deducing its location, compiling every possible detail until circumstances nudge her into undertaking the hunt for real. Paying no heed to financial limitations or even her own safety, Kumiko makes the journey from Japan to America’s frigid Midwest, trudging forward in pursuit of a treasure she knows is just waiting for her — no matter how many of the eccentric personalities she meets along the way try to convince her of the contrary.

Legends are embedded within Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter‘s DNA, as its conceit was inspired by what became a real-life urban myth. In 2001, word-of-mouth turned Takako Konishi’s tragic suicide outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota into a story of how she “really” died while searching for the Fargo loot, and while director David Zellner’s take doesn’t purport to be a straight retelling of these events, it’s clear that a marriage of fact and fiction is afoot. Sandwiched between bookends that inject more fanciful elements to Kumiko’s travels (with a prologue that sees her discovering the tape beneath a rock) is a rather frank and unflinching portrait of mental illness, in which nary a character’s traits seem sensationalized. No one in Kumiko’s life is especially demonized, and though some of her behavior can be taken in as a form of awkward, gallows-style humor, our protagonist is neither mocked or deified. Zellner merely presents her struggle as a woman coming to terms with feeling utterly lost in the world around her. Hers is a story told mostly in silence, without so much as a monologue to provide insight as to whether or not she even truly believes in the money’s existence. What’s important is that Zellner makes it evident that the fantasy is all Kumiko really has, as well as that we’re familiarized with how uncomfortable her interactions with “regular” society are without casting judgment on her for it.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has a talent for finding both beauty in the mundane and the sort of underlying passive-aggressiveness that would inspire its titular heroine to seek seclusion. From Kumiko’s cluttered surroundings in her native Japan to the snow-draped landscapes of Minnesota, the film retains a rich but relatable look, one that’s often very pretty yet always aware of the little things that could make someone feel like a stranger no matter where they roam. But the camera’s role in absorbing viewers within the world of its protagonist pales in comparison to the duties that Kikuchi hosts upon her plenty capable shoulders. Be it Oscar-bait dramas like Babel or comedic capers a la The Brothers Bloom, she’s dabbled in multiple genres across her career and made a distinct impression in every one, and this flick is no exception. Her given task is by no means a cinch (say a lot without literally saying a lot), but Kikuchi fulfills it with seemingly little effort, maintaining constant contact with Kumiko’s humanity and refusing to let her be turned into something so crass as a martyr with no flaws to speak of. Zellner commits as much effort towards sympathizing with Kumiko as he does with casting a light on her more selfish tendencies, achieving a balance that also applies to (albeit to a lesser extent) his supporting players. Though the ensemble has been sprinkled with an array of oddballs cut from a comedic cloth not unlike that which the Coens often employ, we get the idea that folks like a lonely old widow (Shirley Venard) and a hapless deputy (Zellner himself) live in their own bubbles without the need to be painted as caricatures.

As it dwells on the outskirts of multiple genres, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter dons a variety of hats and tones throughout its running time but retains a unique identity all the same. Only as the finish line approaches does sentiment come to seize command of the story’s direction, yet even still, it feels earned, wrapping matters up with an act of tribute that doesn’t betray the kind of tale that the previous hour and forty-plus minutes spent spinning. Beautiful, peculiar, melancholy, and amusing all at once, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is terrific enough to justify any number of “hidden gem” puns.

(This review is part of a crossover with Josiah Wampfler of the Cinema Bros podcast. Click here to listen to Josiah’s thoughts on the film I chose for him, Greendale.)