Title: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Director: David Zellner
Major Players: Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner, Shirley Venard
Out Of Five: 3.5
In 2001, the body of Japanese office worker, Takako Konishi, was found in a field in Minnesota, some miles from a town with a name that rings loud bells among film fans. Fargo. Her death was ruled a suicide, but the media ran a story that she’d died trying to find the money buried by Steve Buscemi in the Coen brothers’ film. A subsequent documentary about Konishi was entitled This Is A True Story, echoing the words at the start of the 1996 Oscar winner.
Those words pop up repeatedly in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, a film all about communication and the difference between belief and reality, which is based heavily on the Konishi story. And it’s a film very much of two halves.
The first is in Tokyo, where Office Lady Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) lives in a small, chaotic flat with her rabbit, Bunzo. She hates her job, has few if any friends and is just another face in the crowd. But finding a video of Fargo gives her hope: she latches on to the opening line about it being a true story, makes a treasure map of where the money in the film is buried and, with little English and even less preparation, takes off for Minnesota. Part two follows her efforts to get through the snow and cold to Fargo and find her treasure.
Despite being American in origin, the first half of the film is Japanese all the way, including the language, which is translated through subtitles. Director David Zellner – we’ll meet him again later – clearly has a feel for the Tokyo way of life, the anonymity, the immaculate uniforms that all the Office Ladies have to wear. Kumiko’s aversion to the world around her is so powerful that she spits in her manager’s tea before serving it and is reluctant to give her number to an old friend who, while a touch overpowering, is genuinely keen to re-start their friendship. We never find out for sure why she’s so low and lonely, although the pressure from her mother – a voice on the phone – to get a promotion at work, get married and have children is relentless. Sadly, depression is a safe assumption.
But finding the video changes all that. The second half of the film picks up on her declaration of being a conquistador and calls itself The New World. It’s also The Coen World, as she’s plunged straight into an homage to their film and their style of film-making. The landscape is stark, covered in snow yet somehow beautiful, especially when dustings of snow blow like silk over the road. It’s full of Coen-esque characters as well, like the well-meaning and equally lonely old lady who gives Kumiko a place to stay. Or the kind hearted police officer who tracks her down after she runs away from her motel when she can’t pay the bill. He accidentally switches on his car’s siren – and explains why over his loudspeaker! The humour is equally Coen-esque, low-key and based on the incongruities of life: Kumiko is travelling by bus when it breaks down and the driver explains to all the passengers that he can’t fix it because of his carpal tunnel.
Some of the photography is just breathtaking, especially one image of Kumiko standing in the middle of a frozen lake in the snow covered wilderness. It’s a real wow shot. On top of her clothes, she’s wearing the quilt from her hotel room to keep warm and, along with the hood from her sweatshirt, it makes her look even more Japanese.
Rinko Kikuchi – familiar from Pacific Rim – beautifully combines fragility and strength as Kumiko. She’s deeply unhappy yet determined to pursue her quest, even if it’s nothing more than a dream . Her facial expression hardly ever changes, yet her eyes are remarkably expressive, and her sadness wins your sympathy from the start, even if you don’t totally understand why.
Director David Zellner – him again! – also plays the local cop who tries his best to help her and, like everybody else, fails. It’s a nicely judged piece of acting of an ordinary, compassionate guy who can see she’s unhappy but is hampered, like everybody else, with not being able to speak her language. And I don’t just mean Japanese.
Then there’s the ending. It’s not as ambiguous as it first appears. It starts with her struggling through yet another blizzard, this time at night, and makes a fitting end for a film that’s about where dreams stop and reality begins – and vice versa. But I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about it.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is released in selected cinemas around the UK on Friday, 20 February.