Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter draws on the urban legend about a woman who traveled from Tokyo to rural Minnesota trying to find the treasure buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. It’s fascinating that the Coen Brothers’ film, a huge success at the time, is still casting such a deep shadow on pop culture almost 20 years after its debut. In between the Sundance premiere of Kumiko and its wider release this week, we also got Noah Hawley’s brilliant TV show which also draws on the mythology of the Coens’ dark fable. Rather than a franchise cash in, both projects stem from the way that Fargo deeply affects the viewer. Kumiko is a film that is definitely concerned with the way that a cultural artifact, in this case a VHS of Fargo that the title character finds in a cave just off the beach, can shape a person’s worldview. The film opens at the same place as Fargo, with text proclaiming, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY,” albeit blurred and warped by the condition of the tape. At any other place in the film it might be an overly-obvious metaphor, but at the beginning it serves more as an orientating device.
Starting from that point, we get to know Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) and her life in Tokyo. At 29, she is expected by family, friends, and her employer to be married by now. Her mom wants her to move back home. She is no longer friendly with the other Office Girls. Kumiko retreats inward, her closest bond with her (supremely adorable) pet rabbit Bunzo. Her only outlet is obsessively watching Fargo, handcrafting guides to locate the ransom money buried in the snow.
While it would be easy to dismiss Kumiko as a lone wolf, it's more apt to describe her as the sort of person who sees the role society opens for them and merely shrugs it off. Rinko Kikuchi carries the entire film with ease, her thoughtful expressions conveying Kumiko's inner feelings even with sparse dialogue, and showing the girl as both dedicated and doubtful all at once. She doesn't think that Fargo is a documentary, but rather that the buried money is real. It may seem to be a small distinction, but it's the difference between a comical misunderstanding and a quest based on faith.
It's a distinction the film plays with several times over, especially once Kumiko encounters the policeman played by David Zellner. The most significant of the film's representation of the "Minnesota nice" archetype, he clearly wants to offer assistance, but is completely vexed when trying to understand what that assistance should be, or how to offer it. The interactions between the two encapsulates how the film swerves abruptly between tones, from dark comedy to broad, and from existential malaise to determined focus. All of this is told from Kumiko's point of view, and the visual language of the film sells the alien nature of the world from an unnamed Japanese beach to a Midwestern house not redecorated in decades.
At every turn, Kumiko is a delightful marriage of form and function, an endlessly engaging film that is both accessible and distant. And Bunzo is seriously cute.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens in Philly area theaters today.