Review: Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2015)

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter tells the story of a Japanese woman who, ostensibly mistaken about the veracity of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo, travels to Minnesota in order to uncover the money buried there by Steve Buscemi’s character in the film. Along the way she meets friendly, but clueless, locals, none of whom can make any sense of her insistent demand: “I go Fargo!” But if the film sounds like a quirky and offbeat culture-clash comedy, it’s not. Kumiko is instead an exploration of its title character’s depression and delusion, handsomely shot and funny in moments, but also disjointed and, ultimately, slightly baffling.

The film opens with a close up of the famous title screen of the Coen’s film on a fuzzy VHS copy, which famously and falsely claimed that “This is a true story.” Likewise, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is apparently based in part on the true story of a Japanese woman whom in 2001 (it was claimed) had taken the Coen’s film as truth and ended up frozen in a field in Minnesota. But even that story was a mix of truth and misinformation, and it’s doubtful whether the woman really believed that the events of Fargo were real. Nonetheless, like Fargo, Kumiko plays with the difference between film and real-life and audience perceptions of a story’s truth. But rather than a “power of movies” fable, the film suggests something different about the main character’s mental state and the world she inhabits.

At the beginning of the film, Kumiko is seen walking along a beach in Japan, hunting for treasure, where she enters a cave and uncovers a ratty, old VHS tape of Fargo. The rest of the film is split between the first half in Kumiko’s home country of Japan and then her misadventures in Minnesota. An office worker in Tokyo, Kumiko spends most of her days resenting her boss and looking down on her catty, frivolous co-workers. But most importantly Kumiko seems deeply depressed. She rarely shows much enthusiasm about anything, her depression keeping her isolated from friends and family. The regular phone calls from her mother result in her mother nagging her about getting a promotion, or better yet, married. The only two things that she’s significantly interested in are her pet bunny Bunzo and the VHS of Fargo, which she studies obsessively trying to figure out next to which snowy fence the million dollars was buried.

Eventually, Kumiko decides to go to Minnesota to see if she can find the money. While it makes little sense that a briefcase buried in snow in 1996 would still be around nearly two decades later, even if the events in Fargo were telling the truth, she ends up flying to Minneapolis and navigating tourist advice from religious fanatics and broken-down Greyhound buses in her efforts to find the roadside treasure. The characters she meets do at times resemble the kind-hearted hicks that populate the film Fargo itself, doing Kumiko no favours in distinguishing the fiction or delusion from reality.

Kumiko’s fish-out-of-water adventures mine some comedy from her interactions with Minnesota locals. The people seem to be genuinely helpful even as they can’t move past the confines of their own world. In that uniquely American way they are both friendly and blinkered to the reality of the rest of the world. For instance, a helpful deputy sheriff played by director David Zellner takes Kumiko to the local Chinese restaurant in hopes of finding a translator. Earlier Kumiko meets a kindly widower whose only cultural touchstone for Japan is James Clavell’s 1975 bestseller Shogun. While it’s easy to laugh at these Minnesotans, is the widower’s insight into Japan any more misguided than Kumiko’s notion that Fargo might offer not only an accurate depiction of middle America but act as a guide to a buried fortune?

A person who is depressed can be said to have an inaccurate view of the world and Kumiko literally cannot see past her own obsession with the treasure from Fargo. The film gestures toward some kind of statement on delusions and mental illness, but it never really coalesces into a whole. The first half of the film set in Japan suggests that while Kumiko is depressed and antisocial, Japanese culture is nonetheless stifling with the cultural expectations of work and family. In contrast to her depressing daily life, Kumiko’s dream of finding treasures seems understandable. But the film never makes much of the structural parallels between the respective cultural norms of Tokyo and rural Minnesota, how the narrowness of horizons represent a kind of cultural depression.

Star (and producer) Rinko Kikuchi shows great range as the title character, portraying Kumiko’s deadpan unhappiness and her confusion at the difficulties that confront her in Minnesota. Kikuchi does her best with a difficult character who acts as our only throughline in the film, but we have too little insight into Kumiko’s real intentions or delusions to be able to solidly align with her subjectivity. When late in the film, the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, it’s hard to know how we’re supposed to react. Should we be happy that Kumiko has gained some measure of accomplishment, or be horrified at the cost of her delusion?

In its title, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter suggests that Kumiko’s quest is central to her identity. Her identity in turn is constructed of her (mis-)readings of a film and an inability to parse reality from fiction. Kumiko the film is interesting at moments, with a strong central performance and beautiful imagery. But it’s also never a piercing enough look at the main character’s mental state, nor does it do enough with its metafictional conceit.

5 out of 10

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2015, USA)

Directed by David Zellner; written by Nathan and David Zellner; starring Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, David Zellner, Shirley Venard.