By Sam Inglis @24fpsUK 24fps.org.uk
Kumiko The Treasure Hunter starts out by telling us it’s a true story, but it does so in a unique way. The caption comes from another film, Fargo, which was lying in its caption. It’s the beginning of an interesting relationship between this film and the ‘truth’.
Kumiko is based on the true story of a Japanese woman who was found dead in North Dakota in 2001. She had frozen to death after searching for the money that Steve Buscemi buried in Fargo. The film retains these basic facts, but extrapolates from them; a mix of fact and fiction that creates a rather neat thematic throughline.
The first half of the film is spent in Japan giving us some idea of why Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) might find herself on this quest for the ‘treasure’ she believes she will find in North Dakota. It’s not an unfamilliar story; a dull job as an office girl in Tokyo; a lack, perhaps even a fear, of social contact, an overbearing mother who insists, whenever they speak, that Kumiko should move back home until she’s married. Her reaction is extreme, but we can appreciate why Kumiko might find herself slipping in to a fantasy world.
The tone is well balanced here and throughout; scenes of Kumiko tracing over paused images from Fargo, measuring the distance between fenceposts to create a map, are funny, but they’re also sad. Both Kikuchi and writing/directing team Nathan and David Zellner get the tone just right; Kumiko is pitiable, but there’s a strength of conviction that keeps her from being pathetic and the film acknowledges that there is a sad comedy in her actions, but never resorts to mocking her.
Rinko Kikuchi made her mark with a striking performance in the otherwise groan-inducingly worthy Babel and managed to emerge from Guillermo DelToro’s abysmal Pacific Rim with her dignity intact. Here she’s just as good, and much more fortunate with her material. Kumiko is a very quiet character, even before she gets to the US and is confronted with a language barrier and Kikuchi’s characterisation often comes through largely in how she holds herself. This is particularly notable when she meets an old friend on the street and is asked to exchange numbers. Not only does she not take the phone offered, she seems to try to curl up into a ball, while remaining standing. The only time she seems at all comfortable or content is when she’s alone and pursuing her goal in some way.
Other characters drift in and out of the film around Kumiko, with the focus on them slightly increased after she steals a company credit card and uses it to travel to the US. The most notable of the characters who try to help Kumiko is a cop played by by director David Zellner. Zellner gives him a solid, all American, blue collar niceness. He’s confused by this girl, not sure what to do (in search of someone to translate for them he takes her to a Chinese restaurant, one of the details retained from the real story), but he genuinely wants to help.
Zellner’s visuals draw clear distinctions between the two haves of the film, with the second half often paying visual tribute to Fargo, while not explicitly copying it, but for one shot. The Tokyo sequences have a slightly detached feel, as if observing from a distance. This may be partly driven by the fact that Zellner is a foreigner, but both halves seem to visually reflect what Kumiko is feeling. In Tokyo she is disengaged from her life, the only connection she feels seems to be with her pet rabbit, and the sequence in which she lets him go is the one where we feel the most emotional engagement from Kumiko. In the US all she is thinking about is Fargo and the treasure, so it makes sense that her experience of the place would have a Coen brothers feel (this also comes through in the score, which echoes Fargo’s, initially subtly, but with increasing emphasis as the film goes on).
Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is well summed up by its final few minutes; a happy ending that isn’t. We know what happened to Kumiko, but Zellner chooses to acknowledge this inevitablity by showing us one thing while implicitly telling us something else. It’s as cleverly balanced as anything else in this sad and sweet, funny and emotionally engaging movie.
Kumiko is on general release from Friday 20th February.