Kumiko even waddles in the same way as Marge Gunderson, the incredible protagonist of “Fargo,” waddles with her pregnant belly. This and so much more connects the bizarre film, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” with its indirect spiritual predecessor, the Coen Bros. masterpiece. Heck, this film was directed and written by brothers, David and Nathan Zellner. Using a wonderfully strange premise of which Kumiko, played by Rinko Kikuchi, seeks to find the batch of money Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter buries towards the end of “Fargo,” the film embarks on quite possibly one of the most darkly ludicrous adventures in recent cinematic memory. It always had me asking the question: Where in the world is Kumiko going?
Kumiko lives in Tokyo, Japan working in a fantastically mundane job at an office expressing all sorts of banality with a boss who gives little to no respect. Yet, Kumiko’s interaction with the mundane may stem more from her own detachment than her environment. She does not socialize with her coworkers, she is aghast when seeing a longtime friend for the first time, and her relationship with her mother is cold and only through the telephone line. The film begins with Kumiko on the beach finding the damp VHS tape of the Coen Bros. film. Right from the very beginning her mind wanders to this chance at hunting for treasure and it never falters. Kumiko likens her spirit to the Spanish Conquistadors. Eventually, and with the help of stealing her company’s credit card, she flies to Minnesota to commence her fantastical journey. What transpires is culture clash between the homely unique people of the Midwest and an individual situated as a Japanese outcast. nothing about this clash is normal, and nothing that happens in this film is normal.
Despite the sheer lack of normalcy, Rinko Kikuchi performs well as the heart and soul of the film’s strangeness. She strikes a bewildering balance between a detachment that the audience can easily scoff at and a longing that the audience could just as easily sympathize with. Rinko’s eyes do far more than her spoken work (though when she speaks, it resonates). It is a characterization that is hard to convince and may not for some, but it is a character tackled with confidence by a veteran actor.
For better or for worse, this unique character is placed within a framework of an uneven tone. The film seems to take the staple nature of Coen brothers dark comedy, yet the Zellners seem to desaturate much of the cartoonish facets pronounced in “Fargo” into a more nihilistic desolation. On one level, this desaturation makes sense in that Kumiko’s goal is initially and continuously elusive. Yet, at time I felt that this desolation was unfair to Kumiko, unfair to the already desperate character. It felt like the film was an hour and forty minute bludgeoning of a character who may or may not suffer from some mental disorder. And, it is a far cry from the more absurd and hilarious form of torture that the Coen Bros. exemplified in their extremely dark film, “A Serious Man.” One such a level, “Kumiko” confuses as to what they wanted to ultimately tell us about this character. Why, essentially, are we watching a defunct personality live out a sordidly fantastical dream destined to wither? I have yet to figure that out.
But “Kumiko” is a beautiful film both showing a mysterious beauty but, more importantly and inquisitively, the harshness of the midwest landscape. One particular shot has Kumiko walk aimlessly along a lonely back road. Wind picks up with ferociousness as the snow glides over the asphalt. A truck appears in an almost reminiscent manner from the opening shot of “Fargo.” Sean Porter, the director of photography, relives the enthusiasm sported by Roger Deakins in bring to life the solitude of the environment. Kumiko’s costume vibrates in a sense of ideal adventure with the faded rainbow quilt and the pronounced red against the white realm.
“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is a great film, it has tone problems and it has pacing problems. Indeed, there were times where I felt like no momentum existed in the film and, again, we sat watching a tormented Kumiko being tormented, a stillness that was slightly unpleasant. Nevertheless, there is majesty in the film, a majesty wholly unfamiliar to conventional narrative but one worth exploring.