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Kumiko the Treasure Hunter: Sundance Review

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter Sundance Film Still - H 2014

The Bottom Line

An eccentric arty serio-comedy about a Japanese woman's quest for buried treasure in Minnesota.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Cast

Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner

Director

David Zellner

Rinko Kikuchi stars as a young woman who embarks upon an unlikely journey from Japan to Minnesota in search of an imagined treasure in director David Zellner's film.

A work of rigorously disciplined eccentricity, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is at once entirely accessible and yet appealing only to a rarified crowd ready to key into its narrow-bandwidth sense of humor. Anchored by a resourceful performance by the ever-watchable Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Norwegian Wood, Pacific Rim) playing a solitary, possibly bonkers young woman who embarks upon an unlikely quest from Japan to Minnesota in search of an imagined treasure, this third feature from brothers David and Nathan Zellner (Goliath, Kid-Thing) will find a small niche in the domestic specialized market.

Following a map, the disheveled, 30-ish Kumiko searches out a cave by the beach where she finds an old VHS tape. In the cramped, messy Tokyo apartment she shares with a pet rabbit and where she not only has a VHS player but one that still works, she braves the fuzzy images to discover that the film is Fargo, the 1996 Coen brothers classic, and closely examines the scene in which Steve Buscemi buries a cash-stuffed briefcase in the snow alongside a fence in an open field. Suddenly obsessed, she replays the interlude repeatedly and freezes the images to measure the distance between fence posts, doing her best to precisely determine the spot in question.

Painfully shy and withdrawn, Kumiko skulks around with her head down, hoping not to be noticed, is badgered by her mother, secretly spits in the tea she daily prepares for her boss at her job as an “office lady” at a big company, and gets in trouble at a library when she tries to spirit out an oversize atlas that contains a good map of Minnesota, where Fargo mostly took place.

“It’s my destiny,” Kumiko declares to the befuddled library security guard who catches her, comparing herself to the Spanish conquistadors who sought buried treasure in the Americas. Thoughtfully acquiring a DVD of Fargo when the tape gets gobbled up by her old machine (weirdly, she then flushes the tape down the toilet), she disposes of her rabbit in a startling manner and gets on a plane bound for Minneapolis.

You’re either inclined to accept this sort of wacky premise or you’re not. In the broadest sense, this is a comedy of the absurd based on a character so bizarre you have to take her oddity humorously. But there’s also a layer of hipster superiority that aligns itself with Kumiko’s rejection of societal norms and encourages a certain embrace of her quest, however quixotic it seems. There’s every reason to suspect that the woman is genuinely crazy, but she’s more like a secular holy fool anointed to follow her dream in a protected state of grace.

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At the 45-minute point, and accompanied by some stunning images of airplanes being de-iced, Kumiko arrives in the United States. She speaks minimal English but, more problematically, is entirely clueless as to what to do and where to go. Relying upon the kindness of strangers, the increasingly batty lady proceeds by bus into the rural North, then unaccountably gets out to walk through the frigid wastes until she’s taken in by an older woman, who at length advises her not to go to Fargo in the middle of winter.

Through more wind, snow, ice and darkness, Kumiko trudges onward, wrapped in a huge colorful quilt that gives her the air of some exotic creature alighted upon an all-white landscape. Once again she is rescued, this time by a benevolent cop (played by director David Zellner) who has nothing better to do than guide her to her ultimate destination, which yields an interesting surprise.

No matter how nice the locals are to this lost soul, an air of light condescension clings to the presentation of them, as when the cop is made to look stupid when he doesn’t know the difference between Japanese and Chinese at a restaurant. This veil of ridicule is annoying and unhelpful in a film that extends unlimited latitude to the eccentricities of the title character, whose quest is framed as the pursuit of a dream as noble, if as mad, as any taken up by a character in a Werner Herzog film.

Oddly attractive even at her most bedraggled, Kikuchi manages to make Kumiko interesting company no matter how far the character recedes into herself, using subtly expressive body language that would have been at home in silent movies to create a very strange self-imposed social outcast.

Also crucial to keeping the narrowly focused film interesting throughout is Sean Porter’s strong and strikingly composed cinematography, which maximizes the visual potential of what must be the first film ever to feature Japan and Minnesota as its only locations.

The involvement of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor as executive producers along with Kikuchi no doubt stems from the fact that the latter co-starred (in a version of the Sandra Oh role) in the little-known 2009 Japanese remake of Sideways.

Production: Lila 9th Productions
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner
Director: David Zellner
Screenwriters: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Producers: Nathan Zellner, Cameron Lamb, Chris Ohlson, Andrew Banks, Jim Burke
Executive producers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, Rinko Kikuchi
Director of photography: Sean Porter
Production designers: Kikuo Ota, Chad Keith
Editor: Melba Jodorowsky
Music: The Octopus Project
No rating, 103 minutes