Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter Dir. David Zellner

[Amplify; 2015]

Styles: drama
Others: Nebraska, Grizzly Man

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, written by brothers Nathan and David Zellner with the latter serving as director, tells a relatively simple story: a young woman travels to a faraway land in search of buried treasure. One can likely gather that just from the title, which is deliberate and connects the film to a lineage of classic folktales. But here, the fable being re-told is only about 15 years old. The Zellner’s screenplay is based on a (since debunked) urban legend about a Japanese girl who mistakenly believes the events depicted in the movie Fargo (1996) are real, and flies to Minnesota, only to die of exposure while trekking through the subzero temperatures of the American far-north. Pretty gristly, but then again, so are a lot of folktales.

The film begins with some cool stylistic tape-glitching, and a mimic of Fargo’s infamously apocryphal opening title card “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” The Z-Bros twist the C-Bros words here, the obvious VCR-head noise and the familiarity of the statement no longer deceiving, but calling forth a memory of a misconception. We immediately meet (and never leave) Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a forlorn, put-upon young adult in Tokyo, slogging through an unfulfilling job and personal life, clinging to her fixation with a VHS copy of the 1996 Coen Brothers movie. As she takes meticulous notes, hypothesizing the exact location that Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of cash in her well-worn copy of the film, the dramatic irony, underlined by the tense, drone-y score by The Octopus Project, fills the viewer with a sense of malaise. It’s an odd sensation. We know Kumiko is deluded and dead wrong, and yet we also know that we’re watching a movie. Watching her buy into the falsities of Fargo re-frames our own relationship with Kumiko. Every moment that the audience finds themselves thinking “No! It’s not real! It’s not a documentary!” is undercut by the exact same sentiments, applied to their own experience. It casts a strange dream-like haze over the film, as if we’re watching our own biggest mistake played for us in slow-motion.

The cinematography is stunning, with the Zellners choosing to shoot anamorphic and showing a masterful eye for shot composition. Movement within each shot is generally minimal, and the depth of field keeps Kumiko’s easily identifiable teeter-totter gait from making much progress. We often see her from behind, her large red hood, evocative of another folk heroine, obscuring her entire head. This combination of costuming and scenic action enhance our notion that she is traveling down the wrong path, her thoughts overshadowed by the allure and mystery of the treasure hunt, crossing continents but ultimately going nowhere.

As the lead, Kikuchi gives such a dour, understated performance that it’s almost a little hard to swallow. The Zellners want Kumiko to speak to the satisfaction of searching and finding missing from today’s information-rich world, but in actuality her actions read like dissociation from a life she hates; a lethal obsession. In forming such a clear idea of what their protagonist shouldn’t be, it feels a little as though the filmmakers deprived her of some of the humanity they desired, romanticizing her quest yet showing us a person who realistically may need professional help. It plays to uneasiness of the project, but it somewhat diminishes our ability and willingness to track with the character.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, in all its nostalgia for simpler times and tales, actually finds its greatest success in utilizing the complexities of the 21st century: the globe-trotting multi-language nature of the plot, the meta-textual aspects of the storytelling, the cloudiness of reality that persists even through the words “TRUE STORY.” The intricate web of fact and fiction creates a new, modern “unknown,” which is an obstacle all its own, and in searching for whether a fairy tale can still exist in today’s world, the Zellners have discovered a very nuanced answer and a compelling film.

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