Directed by David Zellner
Starring Rinko Kikuchi
The 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 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, but to Kumiko that treasure is absolutely real, and it represents a whole matrix of values to her: adventure, escape, self-determination, importance. 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.
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.
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.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter screens at Somerville, UWA from Monday, March 16, until Sunday, March 22, and ECU Joondalup Pines from Tuesday, March 24, until Sunday, March 29,as part of Lotterywest Festival Films. For tickets and session times, go to perthfestival.com.au.