In 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen released their classic crime drama Fargo. The movie started with an onscreen notice stating that it was based on a true story, and that the names had been changed to protect the innocent. It didn’t take long for the media to uncover that this was not true; the claim was nothing more than a sly bit of Coen prankishness. Still, early audiences bought the lie hook, line, and sinker. After all, who would fabricate such a thing? Nineteen years later, that little joke fuels a whole other movie called Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) plays Kumiko, a Japanese “office girl” whose duties include picking up her boss’s dry cleaning and getting his coffee. She’s older than most of the other office girls, is single (to the eternal dismay of her mother), and feels deeply depressed. The only bright spots in Kumiko’s life are her pet rabbit Bunzo and a VHS copy of Fargo that she found while walking along the beach. Mistaking it for a true story, she obsessively watches a scene near the end in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of money in the snow. Since the disclaimer says this is all real, Kumiko makes a map that she believes will help her find the hidden fortune. Eventually, she travels to America, gets waylaid in Minnesota, and encounters a number of kindly people, including an elderly widow and a police officer, who don’t understand her but try to help.
The idea of a person mistaking fiction for fact and going on a wild goose chase has all the makings of a dumb comedy, but Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter couldn’t be further from that. It’s a smart movie, and while there is some subtle humor, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to label it a comedy. Directed by David Zellner, who co-scripted with brother Nathan, the film is actually both a meditation on depression and an astute look at how movies can fill a void in our lives, giving us hope or inspiring us to get out of our comfort zones. Kumiko is sad and unfulfilled. There is little joy in her existence. She’s isolated from others, including her own family. Watching Fargo every day brings her some much-needed sense of purpose, no matter how misguided. Without it and Bunzo, she would have nothing.
Because we know Fargo is not real, the story builds an ever-increasing sense of empathy toward Kumiko, who endures multiple hardships in her trek to North Dakota, including poverty and brutal weather conditions, not to mention people trying to explain to her that it’s just a movie. We don’t know how her journey will end, although we do know it probably won’t be what she expects. And while crushing disappointment would seem to await, we can’t shake the idea that it’s OK deep down, even if it’s sad on the surface. Belief in Fargo gets Kumiko out of her shell. She travels, she interacts with other people, and, for once, she has something in life to really be excited about. The further Kumiko gets in her travels, the more we feel for her and want her to find some sort of satisfaction. I had no idea how Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter would end, but it does so hauntingly and perfectly.
Kikuchi is brilliant in the lead role. The actress conveys all the loneliness and melancholy that defines Kumiko, while also making that glimmer of hope shine through. She creates a nice barrier between the character and those she meets along the way. We understand why they’re baffled by Kumiko’s mission, yet also oddly compelled to help her. Interestingly, Kumiko doesn’t say a whole lot. Kikuchi creates a fully-developed character largely through her facial expressions and body language. This is a great example of how effective minimalist acting can be. The supporting actors, including Shirley Venard as the old lady and David Zellner as the cop, provide colorful counterpoints, helping to make Kumiko’s interactions with others sweetly quirky.
Most of us have one particular movie that has great meaning for us. Maybe we identify with it, maybe it just gave us a great ride, or maybe it inspired us in some way. That’s the power of cinema. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter understands this. Beautifully acted, smartly written, skillfully directed, and gorgeously photographed, it takes us on a subtle-yet-meaningful adventure with a young woman who refuses to let the harsh realities of her existence kill the shred of optimism that is still embedded somewhere inside of her. In the end, she is changed by her journey, and we are left with a deeply affecting film that could inspire others to break out of their unhappy circumstances and dream of something better.