Kumiko – the Treasure Hunter

This American film ( in Japanese and English) from the Zellner Brothers ( Nathan writes and David directs) is one of a few which draws it’s inspiration from film itself. In this case, it is Coen Brothers classic, FARGO which Japanese office worker, Kumiko ( Rinko Kikuchi) mistakenly assumes to be a documentary and therefore believes, as the film shows, that a suitcase filled with money was buried and left behind in the frozen wastelands of North Dakota. And so she sets out to find it.

Beginning in Tokyo, Kumiko lives in lonely isolation from her millions of co-inhabitants and is being slowly overwhelmed by the daily drudgery of her office job and an unsympathetic boss. She comes across a video tape of the film Fargo which is so badly damaged that one of the few remaining things to register is the opening declaration, that the film id based’ on true events’. Phone conversations with her unseen mother provide background information on Kumiko’s state of mind and presages more troubling times to come. So, in the case of the misunderstanding about the film, what may have seemed to be an act of naivete is soon revealed to be something more sinister mental implications.

For the central role Rinko Kikuchi was the ideal choice. Not only does Kikuchi’s acting skill carry the film convincingly but the fact that she is Japanese makes so many of the narrative elements, concerning misunderstanding more plausible. With minimal dialogue, Kukichi gives a moving, complex and commanding performance as the girl who somewhat akin to a female Don Quixote, inhabits a shadowy land that is more chimerical than real. Wearing a consistent mask of sadness, Kukichi’s doleful eyes speak eloquently of a growing sense of anguish.

Communication is at the core of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter .At the simplest level, there are the linguistic difficulties of a Japanese girl with little English, trying to make her way across America to the plains of Minnesota. But there are more complex factors at work. The deputy Sheriff (played with enormous empathy by David Zellner himself, showing just how talented an operator he is) tries to explain to Kumiko that the film that she watched is pure fiction but his words fall on deaf ears. When Kumiko jumps in a cab to drive to Fargo(the location of the buried money) the Zellners’ theme is repeated as she encounters a deaf driver who has to communicate via a whiteboard. However, it becomes increasingly clear that rather than language, the real problem with communication  is one of self delusion. Kumiko only sees and hears what she wants to see and hear.

Sean Porter’s cinematography, especially in the snow laden forest, is exquisite and the use of colour is dynamic. Kumiko’s red hood, for instance, set against a background of flat featureless snow is a simply stunning visual in a film with many strong images.

With the aid of a soundtrack ( from the Octopus Project) that is a hybrid of electronic sound and music and which reflects perfectly the edgy feel of the film, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter moves, inexorably to what can only be a tragic conclusion.

The Zellner Brothers have produced an incisive “road” film that journeys through the mind rather than the country, showing that perception can be a fine balance between reality and fantasy with only a paper width between them. There is hardly a flaw anywhere in this compelling drama and like the Coen Brothers’ film which they have taken as their source,. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is set to become something of a classic itself. It’s a vivid demonstration of the unique power of the medium to realise what can only, otherwise be seen in the mind of the beholder.

Written by Phil Burrows. 4.5/5