Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014) — Image courtesy Chris Ohlson

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Directed by David Zellner (2014)

On the surface, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, sounds like a comedy: A Japanese woman, convinced that the Coen Brothers’ Fargo relates the location of a very real briefcase full of money, travels to Minnesota to claim her buried treasure. Beneath this absurd premise, however, lies something very different than a typical comedy: the sympathetic portrayal of a deeply unhappy person who feels compelled to escape from her life into a fantasy at the risk of self-destruction. Directed by David Zellner from a script cowritten with his brother, producer Nathan Zellner, Kumiko is sometimes whimsical, sometimes touching, and thankfully never mocking of its protagonist.

The first half of the film takes place in Tokyo, where 29-year-old Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) lives in a tiny apartment and works as an “office lady,” a clerical job typically populated by young women who are planning to get married and settle down as housewives as soon as possible. Kumiko is not typical, and between her patronizing boss, superficial coworkers, and insufferable nag of a mother, she is constantly reminded of her failure to live up to expectations. Even the prospect of catching up with an old friend whom she runs into on the street seems to fill her with dread.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014) — Image courtesy Chris OhlsonKumiko’s one source of hope is her beat-up VHS tape of Fargo, which she examines every night in an effort to discern the exact location of the buried briefcase. After upgrading to a DVD, she finally thinks she has an answer, and so when her boss lends her his company credit card so she can run an errand, she’s off to America. Once there, she spends the second half of the film making her way toward her treasure, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by an assortment of local characters.

Despite her peculiar obsession and abnormal behavior, there is much about Kumiko that elicits emotional resonance. The scene in which she parts ways with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, is heartbreaking, giving a glimpse into the feeling person beneath her normally guarded exterior. More subtly, one comes to realize that Kumiko has been so beaten down by life that even when people are genuinely trying to be kind to her — as is the case with two well-meaning, if a bit dopey, characters she meets in Minnesota, an older widow (Shirley Venard) and a sheriff’s deputy (David Zeller) — she cannot help but be suspicious of their motives, a pitiable but real and recognizable reaction.

To the extent that Kumiko is successful, much of the credit goes to Kikuchi. Kumiko may rarely speak more than a few words at a time and even more rarely take actions that make any objective sense, but Kikuchi’s portrayal nevertheless allows viewers to see the world through her eyes. Sean Porter’s beautiful photography and The Octopus Project’s atmospheric score also make the film a pleasure to watch and listen to. The Zellners’ film may disorient viewers who come in expecting a barrel of laughs (though such people can be stubbornly persistent), but it will yield returns for anyone who appreciates a gentler sort of humor coupled with empathy and open-mindedness.

After two packed screenings at the Walker Art Center last weekend, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, returns on Oct. 23 for an appearance at the Twin Cities Film Festival.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.