“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”

by Christopher Sanchez

    sanchezch@mnstate.edu

This month, the Fargo Film Festival took the stage at the Fargo Theatre. The five-day festival was filled with events celebrating film and screenings of all genres. While the selection was vast, this reviewer found one film particularly memorable — “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” 

The film follows the story of Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) and her journey to find a hidden treasure sure to change her life.

Kumiko is a lonely 29 year old who hates her dead-end job as a secretary, lives in a cramped apartment with her pet rabbit and is pretty much alienated from the Japanese society she lives in. 

Lonely, envious of her co-workers and striving to impress her disapproving mother, Kumiko finds her only solace in watching The Coen Brothers classic “Fargo,” but she mistakes the cult film for a documentary. She thinks the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a suitcase full of money in the snowy fields of Minnesota is actually concrete. Her life goal is to find that loot of cash. To do it, she’ll wear out her VHS tape by constantly playing back and freezing the scene to get the meticulous details she needs using her own methods to make a treasure map. She becomes a sort of conquistador.

Kumiko takes a lengthy one-way from Tokyo to Minneapolis, and treks throughout the state of Minnesota. The film has beautiful shots of Kumiko trekking through the snow, trying to find her way, and having a few interesting encounters with residents. From a sweet old woman (Shirley Venard) who welcomes her to stay for the night, to a deputy sheriff (co-director David Zellner) who wants to help but is unsure how, the interactions between this Japanese woman and the mid-western folks she runs into along her journey add a comedic aspect to this otherwise dark film.

Throughout, the heroine struggles to get to her destination, while the audience wonders why she would go through all this trouble for something that is really a sham. What makes her believe “Fargo” is true?

The film also toys with Kumiko’s sanity. Is she mentally ill or just desperate? It’s a testament to the talented Kikuchi, who, despite being stilted and quiet throughout, is fascinating to watch because her facial expressions say it all. This is truly a case where actions speak louder than words. Director Zellner and his brother Nathan had their work cut out for them, but succeeded in creating a strange yet beautiful odyssey of a woman who doesn’t have a lot going for her, but feels like it’s her destiny to find this fortune as a way out of a dreary life of isolation and depression.

The irony of “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is similar to “Fargo,” being supposedly based on true events. “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” is based on an urban legend of a Japanese woman who was found dead in northern Minnesota. According to the legend, she was also in search of treasure because of watching “Fargo” in the early 2000s.

While the story had potential to be very sad, Zellner’s film is darkly comedic. It even gets to the point of becoming strangely moving. The journey she goes through, like the journey found in “Fargo,” is an oddity itself, and it’s no less compelling to watch. The pacing of this film is deliberate; it may test the patience of some viewers, but for those who are willing to go with this challenging, haunting and gorgeously-rendered yarn, it will have its own gratifying payoff.

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” was the closing film at this year’s Fargo Film Festival, and easily a favorite of the event. The film was released Mar. 18 in limited release, and it’s quickly expanding in other cities. Hopefully, the film will be back to the Fargo Theatre again sometime soon.

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