Originally posted 2015 | Review by Rachel Wakefield-Drohan
‘This is a true story’ proclaims the text at the beginning of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter.
In 2001 outside a city called Detroit Lakes in Minnesota, Takako Konishi, an office worker from Tokyo was found dead. The cause? She had been searching for the briefcase containing money hidden in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s character in the 1996 Coen brothers’ film Fargo and she died in pursuit of it. This is not the real reason and this is not a true story but it does form the basis for the wonderfully bizarre and fable like Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, directed by David Zellner.
The red sun rises on a rocky, barren beach as a red blot of colour strides along. Kumiko is wearing a vivid red jacket, reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood’s famous cloak. And much like Little Red Riding Hood, Kumiko is on a journey. With an indomitable spirit she is driven to complete a task of mythic proportions; that of finding the treasure from the film Fargo.
Zellner paints a convincing portrait of an outsider in society who longs to accomplish something truly remarkable. The world is insistent that Kumiko engages with it but she resists it completely. Her boss calls her into his office to ask her about her future plans, an old friend or acquaintance wants to meet up with her, her mother calls her and berates her for a lack of progression in her career and bemoans the fact that her daughter is single. Kumiko herself is wild, secret, untamable and probably at least a little delusional. With only her rabbit Bunzo for company, she contents herself with making meticulous notes about the scene in Fargo in which Steve Buscemi hides the briefcase in the snow by the fence. This may seem like a baffling desire but its extraordinariness is what draws Kumiko and by extension us into this bizarre scavenger hunt.
At her job as an office lady, Kumiko is a bright, wild flower amongst her carefully manicured and bland colleagues. Her fantasy draws her away further and further from reality. This owes a lot to Rinko Kikuchi’s intense portrayal of Kumiko. Kikuchi creates an electric performance with minimal dialogue. Kumiko’s quest brings her to The New World,’ much like a Spanish conquistador. She travels to the Midwest in America where she encounters a plethora of comic and sometimes tragic characters who goshdarnit just want to help her. Although well meaning, there is a language and cultural barrier between Kumiko and the Midwestern folks she comes across. More importantly, there is a gulf between fantasy and reality between too.
The visuals are stunning in this film, the Japanese and Midwestern landscapes are authentically shot and we’re given a real sense of what these places are like. Kumiko’s coat is also a stroke of genius, providing a focal point of strong colour in often quite colourless and gloomy backgrounds. Also of note is the soundtrack by the Octopus Project; often unsettling but beautiful. When something gets in the way of Kumiko’s task, an uneasy drone builds until it resolves. It is as if reality itself is imposing upon the well-ordered fairytale that Kumiko inhabits.
A melancholic, dark tale with a few comic moments, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is a delightfully enchanting fable. As Kumiko attempts to free herself from her own reality, there is a realization for the viewer that she herself does not understand the simple and kind beauty of the real world, best embodied by the compassionate people she encounters in Minnesota. She is like a woman possessed who must forge her own path and follow her quest to its terminus. It’s an enthralling story made all the more interesting by the fact that people thought it was true.