This review was originally published on January 25, 2014…
Please note: David and Nathan Zellner, the filmmakers primarily behind “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” are friends of both myself and Film Threat. I don’t feel this changes the way I feel about the film, but disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is something myself and Film Threat like to pay attention to. Thank you.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen varied peeks into the psyches of filmmaking brothers Nathan and David Zellner via their multiple and varied short films and features. While there are far more bizarre filmmakers out there, the Zellners definitely rank as some of the most creative and odd filmmakers around. From their first feature “Frontiers,” in which they invented their own language for characters to speak, to their hybrid documentary “Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane,” wherein the brothers start out as a Mariachi duo escaping a car wreck only to next confront their real-life parents about why only one brother was circumcised at birth (I won’t spoil which one was), you just never know what you might get with these two. So it was with great excitement I settled in for their latest film, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.”
“Kumiko” is based on the real-life story of a young Japanese woman who watches the Coen Brothers film “Fargo” and somehow decides the scene where a bloodied Steve Buscemi buries ransom cash on the side of a snowy highway is real. She then heads out to Fargo, North Dakota to find the cash, and dies in the process. This story has taken on an almost urban legend status, and I immediately imagined the Brothers Zellner (here David directs, Nathan produces) would make a weird, funny and almost twisted film that really makes you wonder more about the initial story than what was actually there. Instead, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is a pretty straightforward, bittersweet, wish fulfillment fantasy about a woman who is so sick and tired of her life, she almost has no choice but to abandon her sad existence in Japan to have an amazing adventure.
Kumiko works away her days in a boring office as some kind of secretary. Her co-workers are yammering hens who worry about materialistic things and continually alienate Kumiko. Her boss is a hard-a*s who seems to pick solely on her and the only other human interaction she gets is when her mother calls to berate her about being single and wasting money living alone. Luckily she has an adorable bunny named Bunzo to keep her company. The film opens with Kumiko searching for buried treasure and discovering a battered old VHS tape of “Fargo” and soon she decides she’s pinpointed the location of the buried money. After some hesitation, she throws caution to the wind and heads off to America, bringing only what she’s wearing.
Rinko Kikuchi is amazing as Kumiko. While she doesn’t have much to say, her eyes say it all as we at first see her simmering rage and frustration at her place in life. She tries to hold it in but her vacant stares and later, angry fits about her search really fill us in on her character. The plot is also a fairly intense one as Kumiko is both flat broke and has dressed absolutely inappropriately for the frozen tundra of the Midwest. As a viewer, I felt a real pressure for Kumiko to meet her goal but at the same time, we all know the goal isn’t real so it makes for a sad, intense viewing experience.
But the superstar in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is the cinematography and direction. The film starts in stuffy, claustrophobic Japan and I genuinely felt Kumiko’s mental state. But as the film moves on to Minnesota and, later, North Dakota, there’s some brilliant imagery of Kumiko, a true fish out of water in her red sweatshirt amongst the frozen white landscape of the Midwest.
Again, this all sounds like it could be a pretty offbeat and zany adventure, but it’s not. And that’s not a bad thing at all, but it took me a little while to realize my expectations were way off. And while it took me a while to get into the zone for “Kumiko,” I soon realized this was a big step forward for the Zellner’s, and while there’s flourishes of their previous strange work, this film is really a different type of film from the previous ones, creatively speaking. This is definitely due in part to the more “mature” story, but mainly to the gorgeous cinematography by Sean Porter and the simple, effective story of a very confused girl looking for hidden treasure.
I can’t lie, I was hoping “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” was going to be funnier. But the more I think about it, that would really be in bad taste, as this is a rather tragic film about a clearly delusional woman looking for something that doesn’t exist and dying in the process. In true Zellner Brothers fashion, the two have taken a story and put a unique twist on it. We want Kumiko to succeed even though, as real life and the film inform us, this isn’t going to happen. But then again, film in general is largely based on wish fulfillment, and with David and Nathan Zellner at the helm, maybe we’re getting that wish after all. Just not the way we expected it.