Mark Reviews Movies

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: David Zellner

Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Kanako Higashi

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 3/18/15 (limited); 3/27/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 26, 2015

It begins with a declarative statement in bold, capitalized letters: "THIS IS A TRUE STORY." The words belong to the opening text of Fargo, but they—the words and the shot of the opening text from the Coen brothers' 1996 film—also serve as the introduction to Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a movie about a woman who finds unintended meaning in the other film.

A bit of a primer is required at this point. Despite its initial claim, the opening statement in Fargo is not entirely honest. In fact, it's sort of an inside joke on the part of Joel and Ethan Coen, who were testing the limits of just how much they could get away with in their story under the assertion of truth.

Knowing this, we can assume that director David Zellner's movie, which was co-written by Zellner and his brother Nathan, has co-opted the inside joke as a meta one, enforcing the point that their story is not entirely truthful. It is, to a degree, a little more honest about its real-life inspiration than the Coens' film. There really was a woman from Japan who went to Minnesota, and her sad tale of depression came to a tragic end. That story, though, has become an urban legend: the strange story of a woman from Japan who, believing that every part of Fargo was true, arrived in Minnesota in search of a briefcase full of money that was featured in the film. It also came to a tragic conclusion.

This is necessary to say, because the Zellners offer no guidance beyond that questionable assertion: "THIS IS A TRUE STORY." Maybe it's better the less one knows about the whole thing.

The movie splits the difference between truth and myth, telling the story of the urban legend to create an odd tale about a determined woman suffering from depression with an air of melancholy to the whole affair. What that says about movies themselves—their assertions of truth or their responsibility to an audience—is a mystery that this movie doesn't approach.

It's unclear what it means that this story is partially true but that the Zellner brothers have decided to go the route of printing the legend—until the point that the movie forges its own path by ignoring both truth and legend. Honestly, it's difficult to tell for certain whether or not the Zellners themselves have much of a theory about those ideas, either—apart from the fact that it makes for a sad, strange story and that it reinforces the notion that filmmakers are allowed their own form of truth-telling.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an "office girl" in Tokyo. She is 29 years old, keeps her eyes averted whenever she's speaking to someone, and has no obvious ambitions. She is also unmarried (an oddity to her boss and a sin to her mother, who doesn't understand why her daughter won't answer the phone to receive a routine scolding), isn't dating anyone, and has no desire to move anywhere in her career. Kumiko only has her pet rabbit and a unique hobby.

The movie's opening sequence sees the woman walking down a beach, following a treasure map stitched in a piece of cloth. "X" marks the location of an unmarked VHS tape. On the tape is Fargo. Kumiko begins studying the scene where the briefcase filled with money is buried alongside an endless stretch of fence. She outlines the spot on the screen, measures it with precision, and, after an opportunity to use the company credit card arrives, takes a flight to Minneapolis to find a way to get to Fargo and discover the money she knows is waiting for her. It's her "destiny."

We spend so much time attempting to dissect what all of this "means" that it would be easy to miss how insightful a study of depression the movie is. There's the way she tells little and big lies to avoid difficult topics of conversation. There's the hopeless pair of scenes in which she tries to set her rabbit free. The first time, she cannot bring herself to walk away from the pet, so she chooses a way in which she doesn't have a choice—leaving the separation to the hard and fast schedule of the city subway.

In Minnesota, where the unforgivingly cold wind and whirling snow is harsh juxtaposition to the bustling tranquility of Tokyo, she encounters a pair of helpers: an older woman (Shirley Venard) who offers a place to spend the night and a policeman (David Zellner) who optimistically thinks he could understand her if not for the "cultural barrier." Kikuchi is very good here as a woman who has taken to living inside herself, lest anyone—even these exemplars of "Minnesota nice"—might see her for the person she is.

The simplicity of the setup works, so perhaps all of this layering—of truth and legend and flights of fancy—is an unnecessary burden here. The story at the movie's core is genuinely affecting. Maybe that's the point of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter—that even the knowledge of inaccuracy cannot lessen the impact of an interesting story told with compassionate understanding. The layers just seem like a lot of baggage to pile on to that rather simple idea.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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