After being nudged by her boss Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube) as being on the aged side for an office lady at 29, the lonely outcast decides to take action on the treasure she's been charting from the 'true story' of "Fargo" which she's been analyzing via a beat up VHS tape and become "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter."
Inspired by a 'true' story that unbeknownst to him was an urban legend, cowriter (with brother Nathan)/director David Zellner's unwitting meta movie is a huge leap forward for the filmmakers known for their shorts and the offbeat tale of a man searching for his missing cat ("Goliath"). As reflective of "Fargo's" quirky landscape as the TV show it inspired, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" is grounded by a moving performance by producer Rinko Kikuchi ("Babel," "Pacific Rim") who is surrounded by a memorable cast of supporting players. This melancholy comedy will haunt you.
The unkempt, uniformed Kumiko doesn't mesh with the giggly coworkers whose conversation consists of eyelash perms and the availability of coupons for said service. She returns to her home to spend time with her beloved bunny Bunzo (Bunzo) and get calls from her mother asking why she's not married yet. When the friendless woman runs into old schoolmate Michi (Kanako Higashi), she runs horrified from a lunch date when she's left to attend the woman's small child. Sakagami's introduction of a new young obvious replacement finally spurs Kumiko to take action.
Her first stop is the public library where she attempts to steal an atlas. Her persistence wears down a Library Security Guard (Ichi Kyokaku), who rips out the page she needs to go along with the needlepoint treasure map she's made from freeze framing her "Fargo" tape. Bunzo proves her biggest, heartbreaking hurdle, but as Pete Drake's 'Dreams' plays on the soundtrack, a plane takes off in Tokyo. Zellner cuts to Minnesota runway plows and the road movie begins.
Kumiko doesn't speak much English and her story's so bizarre, most folks only get as far as understanding she wants to get to Fargo, still some distance. Robert (Nathan Zellner) and Brad (Brad Prather) are religious recruiters posing as airport tourist aides who get her as far as a bus, but when that breaks down, Kumiko, in a red peaked jacket that makes her look like "Don't Look Know's" dwarf, sets off walking in the snowy terrain. An older woman (Shirley Venard) stops to help and Kumiko's surprised to find herself being offered hot cocoa and a paperback of Shogun. But Kumiko keeps heading towards her goal, her boss's credit card giving out at a roadside motel, a compassionate cop (David Zellner) doing everything in his power to help her (including taking her to the owner of a Chinese restaurant). The movie couldn't end more perfectly.
The film's production is quite inspired, from camerawork that is at turns observational and menacing to sound design which plunks us into Kumiko's head space. Our heroine's costuming is terrific, from her office lady uniform that makes her look like a schoolgirl to the hotel bedspread she uses to augment her cold weather gear that ends up making her look like a Kabuki actor. The score by Octopus Project, which won a Special Jury award at 2014's Sundance Festival, is integral to the film's tone which ranges from playful to dark (as written, Kumiko may be suffering from mental illness - or not).
"Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" may reference other films, different genres and flirt with indie whimsy overload, but all its elements add up to a true original with a strongly beating heart.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a lonely 29-year old Tokyo Office Lady working at a job that she hates. When she finds an old discarded VHS tape of the American film classic, “Fargo,” she believes it is real and her destiny is to travel to that titular land and find the money that was buried in the snow. Her journey will be thousands of miles but that will not deter “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.”
This is yet another “based on a true story” but in this case, fact is crazier than fiction and director David Zellner (with co-scribe Nathan Zellner) brings the story to the big screen. Oscar-nominated actress (“Babel (2006)”) Rinko Kikuchi is the titular hunter and she gives life to her tragic character. As she faces the increasing pressures from her boss and her mother – she constantly insists her daughter get married - Kumiko sinks deeper and deeper into the fantasy that she created in her mind.
Kumiko studies the “Fargo” video tape so many times that she wears it out, jamming the play deck. She buys the DVD of the movie and uses it to pinpoint, in her delusional mind, the exact place where Steve Buscemi’s crook, Carl Showalter, buried the loot and marked the spot. She uses the images from the DVD to create a needle point map that pinpoints the location of the money and leaves her troubled life for one of the search for buried treasure and freedom.
Kumiko endures all the obstacles she faces trying to get to her treasure and, along the way, is helped by kind strangers. In particular, a policeman (David Zellner) tries to make her understand that “Fargo” is a fiction film, not a documentary; and, an older woman (Shirley Venard) takes Kumiko into her home and helps her in her expedition. Kumiko steadfastly refuses to be deterred from her plan and makes her way, alone, into the wilderness to find her destiny.
What should be a tragic story has so many upbeat turns that it charming and affective. It is obvious, to us the audience, that Kumiko has some deep psychological issues, among them obsession and delusion. Still, we root for her and really want her to succeed, making us as delusional as she. This is a good thing because we get to go with her on her quest and share fantasy. I give it a B+.
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