Movie Review: Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is a watchable but odd film. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. While combining a stylistically Asian first half with a homage to the 1996 movie “Fargo” in the second half, it manages to maintain a consistent viewpoint throughout. That viewpoint is one of patient and detached observation of a woman slowly losing her bearings on reality.
Kumiko is a 29-year old “office lady” in Japan who hates her job and is alienated from everyone around her. She is withdrawn and depressed, never smiling. She spits in her boss’s tea before bringing it to him. She avoids an old school acquaintance, fleeing from a meeting she was pressured into.
The driver of the story is Kumiko’s discovery of an old videotape of “Fargo.” Already given to hunting for hidden treasures and obscure meaning in random patterns, she comes to believe the scene of a character hiding a valise full of money in the Minnesota snow is a real event. After all, the movie says it is “a true story.”
Don’t we all want to fall for that line, “based on a true story”? Well, guess what? “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is supposed to be just that. I knew this going into it, so I’m not sure how much it affected my viewing. The story is certainly realistic, if strange. I could believe it was true. (Check the internet yourself to find out how much of it is.)
After a slow exposition of Kumiko’s life in Japan, halfway in the movie changes location when she steals her boss’s credit card and flies to the U.S. to search for the hidden valise. In the winter. In Minnesota. All alone and with sparse command of the English language. Clearly this is either a tragedy in the making or will end with a happy twist of some kind.
The movie keeps you off-balance at she pursues her quest, wondering which road it will take. Kumiko meets a few Fargo-type locals, including a talkative older woman who plucks her off the side of the highway in a snowstorm and a police officer who tries to convince Kumiko “Fargo” is not real. The Minnesota scenes have the same deadpan gaze at nice people dealing with difficult people that “Fargo” did, only there is little humor to be found here.
Directed and co-written with his brother Nathan by David Zellner, the movie centers on Kumiko in every scene. The character is not a likeable person, but Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi generates sympathy with the palpable desperation in her eyes. Late in the movie the camera’s distance from Kumiko’s feelings suddenly collapses when she is being harangued by her mother over the telephone. The fear and despair on Kumiko’s face as she struggles against losing her delusion, which is all that now stands between her and the horror of her position, is heart rending.
That is the only scene for which an emotional response is clearly indicated. The rest of the story unfolds without signaling what the audience is supposed to feel, and I wasn’t sure what I did. But I was curious how it would end and could relate to Kumiko’s search for an escape from the bleak reality of her life. Not that my life is that bleak, but we all have that feeling from time to time. That’s why we buy lottery tickets, obsessively check social media, and watch movies—the hope of encountering something that will lend color to the greyness of our lives.
The repeated image of Kumiko trekking through the snow with a colorful blanket draped over her like a poncho is a beautiful and haunting one. It conveys her self-created isolation, the barrenness of the life she has been traversing, and the hothouse imagination she has wrapped herself in for protection.
We all want to believe our hopes are “based on a true story,” one in which we are loved, recognized, and headed for a happy ending. Only very few of us will go to such an extreme in pursuit of those hopes.