Directed by David Zellner
Starring Rinko Kikuchi
The world can be very cruel to small things.
In Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary about Antarctica, Encounters At The End Of The World, there’s a bit of business about how sometimes the odd migrating penguin will break off from the flock and begin marching towards the mountains in the interior of the continent for no discernible reason. Once they set out on that trek nothing can dissuade them: they keep heading toward their mysterious destination, away from food and shelter and companionship, until they inevitably drop dead. It’s sad and funny and kind of awe-inspiring, and it’s the first thing that people bring up whenever the film is discussed.
In Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, Kumiko is the penguin.
This third feature film from the brothers Zellner (David directs, Nathan produces, they co-write) has its roots in an urban legend based around a movie by another sibling creative team, namely the Coen brothers’ Fargo. After the death of Japanese woman Takano Konishi in Minnesota in 2001, the rumour spread that she had perished searching for the briefcase full of money featured in the film. That wasn’t the case, but the Zellners have used the notion as their stepping off point in this rumination on loneliness, belief and the impossibility of true communication.
It’s not hard to see why Kumiko (a never better Rinko Kikuchi) dreams of escape when we get a look at the tight confines of her life in Tokyo. She lives alone with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, and works in an office where she is ignored by her younger, happier, workmates. She has no friends – although a couple of encounters with an old acquaintance suggest this was not always so – and her phone conversations with her mother are characterised by the latter’s callous disapproval of Kumiko’s lack of a husband and general life prospects. Lonely and depressed, she latches onto a decrepit VHS copy of Fargo as a kind of talisman of freedom and possibility, watching the degraded images over and over again like a scholar pondering the Rosetta Stone, eventually determining to travel to wintry Minnesota to find the stash of cash buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in the snow.
Of course, that suitcase full of money simply doesn’t exist. You know that and I know that, but to Kumiko that treasure is absolutely real, and it represents a whole matrix of values to her: adventure, escape, self-determination, importance (in one heartbreaking scene Kumiko yells down the phone at her worried mother that she’s doing something really important, but can’t articulate what or why). It takes a lot of courage for mousy Kumiko to leave her little life in Tokyo and set off on her quest, and you really, really want her to pull something meaningful and positive out of the journey.
But this is the real world, and Kumiko is such a small thing.
The broad strokes of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter sound like the kind of quirky indie fish-out-of-water road movie we’ve seen countless times before, but the brothers Zellner courageously eschew that familiar path, instead constructing something truer and more troubling. Yes, there are quirky, plain-speaking mid-Westerners and, yes, Kumiko often makes for a comical figure set against the snow-blasted and dour landscape (tellingly, the America that Kumiko finds is just as bland and uninviting as the Tokyo she leaves) but it’s played for pathos, not laughs. Which is not to say there’s not a wry streak of humour running through the film, but that it’s undercut by the central truth of the situation, which is that Kumiko is living a dangerous fantasy and, as she progresses on her journey, leaving behind kind people who want to help her but can’t, the odds of a happy ending dwindle and dwindle.
Central to the film is the idea that true communication is impossible, specifically for Kumiko herself but, in essence, for all of us. Kumiko has a rich inner life as expressed by her complex and overwhelming fantasy, but she can’t share it with anyone or make anyone understand its importance to her – nobody in Tokyo and nobody in Minnesota, either. As she continues on her quixotic journey, Kumiko encounters a number of people who try to give her what they think she wants or needs: evangelists who try to give her faith, an old woman who presses a copy of James Clavell’s Shogunon her, a cop who genuinely tries to help her. Sadly, all Kumiko can say is ”Want go Fargo,” three words that cannot carry the complexity of her desires, nor the depth of her delusion.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a strange kind of modern fable that takes the raw stuff of internet speculation and forces us to look at the human drama behind it, engaging us in a willful act of empathy. It’s a difficult film to sum up, but perhaps the word “haunting” will suffice. If nothing else, you will have a hard time forgetting the strange, sad, brave Kumiko.