“This is a true story,” reads the introduction to the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo – and Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) takes the Coens at their word. A 29-year-old “office girl” in Tokyo, Kumiko has become obsessed with the movie, and with the idea that the bag of ill-gotten money buried in the snow at the end of the film is still out there somewhere on the American plains. She doesn’t understand the possibility that the “true story” claim is a gag – or perhaps she needs it to be true too much to consider the possibility that it’s not. And the irony of it is that David and Nathan Zellner’s brilliant Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is fundamentally about the tragic consequences of not being understood.
Kumiko is generally miserable in a society that doesn’t seem to think she has any value. Her boss (Nobuyuki Katsube) sends her on menial errands, to which she can only respond by spitting in his coffee. Phone conversations with her mother inevitably turn to why she isn’t married yet. The Fargo treasure, in Kumiko’s mind, is the thing that will give her life significance. When her boss hands her the company credit card to buy a present for his wife, it becomes her opportunity to take that trip to America, armed with a detailed notebook, charts and a map that she’s torn from a library book.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is constructed largely as a series of episodic encounters once Kumiko arrives in Minnesota, yet those events are far from random. The people she meets are almost all well-intentioned, yet they’re not able to comprehend what it is she needs, even if they can literally understand it when she says the word, “Fargo.” A woman (Shirley Venard) who gives her a place to stay for the night helpfully offers her thoughts that “you don’t want to go to Fargo,” and shares her knowledge of Japanese culture from the novel Shogun. The kindly sheriff (played by director David Zellner) initially tries to understand her by bringing her to a Chinese restaurant so the owner can translate, not quite grasping that there’s no overlap in the languages.
What the Zellners are attempting with Kumiko is a kind of feminist road-trip fable, a spiritual cousin of sorts to Thelma & Louise. From the sense in her native country that she’s already over-the-hill at 30, to the responses of those she encounters in America, Kumiko faces nothing but attempts to convince her that her own dreams and goals are foolish; sitting at a restaurant table with the child of an old friend, a reminder of the only role that’s expected of her, inspires her to run out the door. One of Kumiko’s last encounters is with a deaf cab driver, complicating things to the point where she might as well not be expressing her own desires at all.
At the heart of the story is Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as Kumiko, which has to walk a tricky line that has had some viewers interpreting the character’s behavior as mental illness. There’s certainly a kind of monomania to Kumiko’s quest, and a tenacity that refuses to permit the thought that her one pursuit isn’t real, but Kikuchi finds powerful emotion in the way Kumiko has turned inward, because nobody else around her offers real help.
The Zellners open Kumiko with their own “This is a true story” intro, a nod to the urban legend about a real-life Japanese woman that inspired this story. They’re not telling that real-life story; they’re listening for something deeper about what might inspire someone to look at a fanciful, fictional movie and think it might be her only chance for salvation. And sometimes listening – really listening – to someone’s story is the thing they need most in the world.
KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (4) Directed by David Zellner • Starring Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard • Not Rated • 105 min. • At Osio Cinemas