The opening scene of David Zellner’s “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” plays like a phantasmal dream sequence woven from an old-fashioned cinephile’s journal entries. Kumiko, played by the captivatingly elusive Rinko Kikuchi, treads along the pathways of a rocky coast, eventually entering a tiny burrowed cave and coming across a boulder.
What does she find underneath? A worn VHS copy of Joel and Ethan Coen’s widely beloved 1996 film “Fargo.”
Clearly indebted to the adventurously eccentric spirit embedded throughout the Coen brothers’ critical breakthrough, “Kumiko” is a triumphantly puzzling odyssey that equally crosses and subverts the line between escapist fantasy and psychological experimentation.
Obstinately grasping onto her youth, the 29-year-old Kumiko develops a fascination with “Fargo,” believing the fictional work to be a true-to-life documentary. The iconic “money shot” scene, in particular, drives her to abandon the monotony of her day-to-day routine as a lowly secretary — along with the incessant adulthood inquiries of her prying mother and her condescending boss — in lieu of traversing the snowy Americana plains of the film to procure Carl Showalter’s suitcase filled with countless millions of dollars.
“Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” is a visual feast — a lingering minimalism prevails throughout, with the shots juxtaposing Kikuchi with her resplendent milieus emphasizing her isolation. Walking alone through crowded subway stops or trekking along snowy Minnesota roads, Kumiko’s content with her independence. The film’s stirringly gritty ambient soundtrack, courtesy of Austin-based electronic quartet The Octopus Project, fills the sonic void formed by Kumiko’s disposition towards loneliness.
Kikuchi’s hushed portrayal of Kumiko is breathtaking — her subtle emotiveness is entrancing, the underlying malaise emanating from her unimaginably plain domestic life is resoundingly glum. Her ability to seamlessly vacillate between the tranquil sadness of her to a slightly delusional nomadic is remarkable — even as she ventures through rural Minnesota with a company credit card, a makeshift map of the Upper Midwest and a poorly sewn depiction of the infamous “Fargo” fences in tow, Kikuchi upholds a stoic dignity in her solitary travels. She’s flown solo for the entirety of her adult life in Japan; why would she need to be dependent on anyone else?
An undercurrent of lonely discontent pervades Kumiko’s daily existence — consistently distanced from her gossipy, eyebrow-perming co-workers and a well-intentioned former acquaintance, Kumiko’s sole companion in her disheveled Tokyo apartment is Bunzo, her pet bunny. “The Treasure Hunter” insinuates that Kumiko’s Peter Pan syndrome is indicative of something far more precarious, further underscoring its feverish, disarrayed explorations.
In one especially resonant moment, a police officer inexplicably committed to assisting Kumiko assures her, “You’re not in this alone? Do you understand?” One must suspend their disbelief while accompanying Kumiko in her maiden voyage through the Minnesota wilderness — an unsuspecting, non-English speaking Japanese tourist would, in every other cinematic context, otherwise serve as prime fodder for treachery and murder.
Yet her entire experience in America is bookended with an alarmingly whole-hearted generosity established purely by the bemused kindness of strangers — a kind duo of fundamental Christian folks, a sweetly rambling grandmother and the aforementioned cop all serve as momentary companions to Kumiko in spite of the loss in translation evident in her interpersonal interactions.
Her resilient stubbornness in hunting for the buried treasure resigns her to a self-imposed solitude — an introversion that further compels her to find the fictional Showalter’s riches, in spite of the cultural barriers restricting her and the harsh bile her mother spews at her upon discovering her whereabouts.
Why she foregoes her cushy — albeit solitary — existence in urban Tokyo to venture into the middle-of-nowhere Midwest remains unclear even upon reaching “Kumiko”’s jarring conclusion. The Zellner brothers provide no potential justification to ascribe towards her reckless excursions into the “New World.” In doing so, they provide no subjective critiques or condescension towards Kumiko — nor do they want audiences to do the same.
“Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” is an enigma of a film, much like the titular character herself — brilliantly befuddling and in the best way possible and requiring hours of retrospection immediately after encountering it.
Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected].