Hollywood movies create worlds where audiences crave to live, places of fantasy, adventure, romance and happy endings. Sometimes, it’s a dream so devoutly to be wished that it can be hard to accept the facts over the fiction. This is the premise of the tragic but beautiful Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.
Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, The Brothers Bloom) stars as Kumiko, a Japanese woman seen as a loser by those around her. She has no children. No marriage prospects. No hope of advancement at her job, and no friends aside from her adorable pet rabbit Bunzo. But unbeknownst to these bubbly gabbers and earnest interlopers, Kumiko is deeply ambitious, dedicated to what she believes is her destiny. Using a battered VHS copy of the movie Fargo as a treasure map, she sets out to Minnesota to unearth the money Steve Buscemi’s character buried in a pivotal scene. After all, Fargo’s credits say it’s based on a true story.
So too—loosely—is Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which found inspiration in the urban legend that arose around Takako Konishi. (Beware spoilers at the link.) What might be fact or fiction is not what makes this movie so compelling. What makes it a riveting watch is director David Zellner’s skill for pacing and mood, as well as Kikuchi’s outstanding yet ever-subtle performance.
A pitiful creature with slumped shoulders and zero social skills, Kumiko forces Kikuchi to discard her charismatic smiles and cool girl allure in favor of a resolute grimace and a hotel comforter as a makeshift coat. The movie gives us no invasive voiceover or explanatory confidante to help us understand Kumiko, relying only on her single-minded actions and Kikuchi’s enchanting embodiment of the character. Yet with these, it’s easy to empathize with this misfit who wants so desperately to feel important. For truly: becoming rich, famous and deliriously happy is the best revenge.
But Kumiko is no Danny Ocean. Despite her determination, Kumiko has no mind for planning, so her scheme is pathetically haphazard. This results in the kind of fish-out-of-water scenarios and biting humor that would put her well at home in a Coen Bros. movie like Fargo. Then comes a glorious transition in tone.
As Kumiko gets closer to Fargo and her fence post, her fantasy is challenged by well-meaning Minnesota natives. Reflecting her perception, the film shifts from dark comedy to surreal drama, because nothing—not even a kindly officer telling her directly there is no treasure—will stop Kumiko. The colors likewise change, from dark greys and blues to crisp whites to which Kumiko’s blood-red hoodie provides a brilliant contrast. An eerie elegance permeates the film, bolstered by Zellner’s seductive score of unsettling organ music, isolating cinematography and foreboding tone. It’s enrapturing, making its audience wish desperately for Kumiko’s happy ending even as it becomes increasingly unlikely. The closer she gets, the more our hearts yearn against reality, rallying for a fantastical happy ending. And Zellner knows it.
Like a fairy tale for a cynical modern world, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter gives us a broken heroine who believes in happy endings, pursuing her own no matter the cost. If the Oscars actually gave a damn about women’s stories, I’d tell you Kikuchi is an early frontrunner for Oscars 2016. But forget the award season, and focus up on what is an extraordinary film. Visually striking, emotionally gripping, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is not to be missed.