Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
US (2014) Dir. David Zellner
Dreams. We all have them and sometimes it is the right to do in pursuing them, whether success is achieved or not, but what if those dreams are based on a delusion? We’re not talking entering the X-Factor whilst being unable to sing but chasing something that comes from a fictional source. Surely no-one over the age of 10 is that gullible?
This quixotic tale from movie multi-hyphenate David Zellner, co-written with his brother Nathan, explores this very scenario through a lonely and unfulfilled Japanese office worker Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi). Still single at aged 29, Kumiko is consistently being reminded by her peers and her own mother (Yumiko Hioki) that she should be married or at least dating and/or pregnant by her age. Instead Kumiko lives in a tiny apartment with her pet rabbit Bunzo, planning her next treasure hunt.
Her most recent hunt yielded an old video tape which Kumiko found had the film Fargo on it, which she quickly becomes obsessed with, mostly a scene involving a briefcase of money being buried in the snow by a fence. Kumiko diligently studies the scene and the location, convinced the money is there and using the company credit card of her gruff boss Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube) takes a flight to the US hoping to travel to Fargo and retrieve the treasure.
The first thing to strike the viewer is how this isn’t a quirky comic-fantasy tale with a starry-eyed protagonist winning everybody over with her misplaced idealism leading to an eventful comedy of error road trip and a jolly, mystical ending. This is a straight up drama which has been a decade in the making, inspired by the urban legend of the body of a Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, found in a snowy field of Minnesota in 2001.
Despite its lack of humour there is a whimsical fairy tale like quality to this story in that Kumiko is driven by a naïve sense of wonder which someone of her age should have abandoned long ago. Or perhaps it is the opposite we should be concentrating on and applauding Kumiko for following her on life path and not succumbing to the status quo for the sake of social convention and peer pressure?
Either way the Zellner brothers handle the story with remarkable and rare sensitivity, avoiding the obvious direction of treating Kumiko like a loony, bolstered by a superbly enchanting and committed performance by Hollywood’s “go to” Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, who also has an Executive Producer credit.
Kumiko actually has little dialogue for the most of the film but she doesn’t need it, her facial expressions and body language do all the talking. While her red coat makes her stand out among the people on the street, it is her unkempt hair, dour disposition and insular behaviour that separates Kumiko from the rest of the identikit office ladies. Sakagami mentions this to Kumiko and her mother constantly berates her for being single.
This visual aspect of Kumiko is effectively her default setting, and perhaps one can’t blame her if she is being bombarded with the expectations of social conformity she is clearly not happy with. There are only two points where Kumiko is truly animated – first when she tries to free Bunzo into the wild, shouting at him when he won’t go (she eventually leaves him on an underground train), and second right at the end (which I won’t spoil).
Arriving in the US, miles from Fargo, Kumiko receives help from many quarters but seems reluctant to accept them gratefully as they fail to understand her mission – not entirely their fault as she speaks only a little broken English. An elderly lady (Shirley Venard) first takes Kumiko in, sharing her copy of the classic novel Shogun by James Clavell as her knowledge of Japan, from whom Kumiko flees in the night.
Following another hasty impromptu departure from a motel when the company credit card is declined, Kumiko is picked up by the local deputy sheriff (David Zellner), who gets closest to understanding Kumiko. However, after Kumiko shows him the Japanese DVD of Fargo (I guess his laptop DVD player was multiregional), the sheriff’s insistence that the film wasn’t real, upsets Kumiko and she again takes flight alone to finish her quest.
Throughout the film, one question we are forced to ask ourselves remains pervasive “Is Kumiko mentally well?” Nothing about her necessarily screams “misfit” as Japan is home to one of the most varied societies and quirky cultures in the world, so Kumiko doesn’t appear to be any less normal than anyone else. There is an air of melancholy and a yearning for beyond the norm which Rinko Kikuchi relays with effortless grace and empathy, telling the story through her eyes and downturned mouth.
In the US she is deemed more a curiosity because of her nationality yet again, Kumiko’s complex feelings and determination aren’t hindered by the language barrier or the lack of tangible support. Kikuchi breaks our heart on numerous occasions as Kumiko becomes further isolated from everyone, and as we at first seem to will her on, we find ourselves screaming “Enough! It’s not worth it” as the end nears.
In a rarity for Hollywood the Japan set portion of the film is very authentic, no doubt influenced by Kikuchi and the Japanese crew, with nothing filtered to mollycoddle the US audience. In a cute scene however, the Zellners address the typical Hollywood ignorance of Asia, when the sheriff, unable to speak Japanese, takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant and asks the owner to translate for them!
On the presentation side, the low key atmosphere and gentle pace will suggest arthouse to some, but it is the right approach for a story such as this. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter could be considered the most Japanese non-Japanese film ever made and deserves to be seen by a wider audience, even if only for Kikuchi’s sublime and beguiling performance.