Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2014): Whimsical Urban Legend

Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko

Starring Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, The Brother’s Bloom) and directed by David Zellner (who also co wrote the screenplay with brother Nathan  and played the policeman in the film) Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a whimsical, and somewhat melancholy, retelling of an urban legend. This tale of a socially inept misfit who travelled to America after watching Fargo, to find the money left by Steve Buscemi’s character in the Coen Bros cult hit, before being killed, was influenced by the real-life death of a Japanese office worked who killed herself 2001.

Like Kumiko, the real “treasure hunter” also took off for the wilds of Fargo, woefully ill prepared for her journey, the local media put the Fargo twist on the woman’s death and the urban legend sprang from the suicide and her travel itinerary. The real story prompted a documentary as well as this Zellner Bros  film.

The film opens with a solitary Kumiko (Kikuchi) walking on a deserted beach, following a map and going into a cave at the seaside. She finds an old VHS copy of Fargo buried in the sand and wrapped in oil cloth. Taking it home she plays the worn tape and sees the words that start the Coen Bros classic: Based on a true story…

Kumiko is a 29 year-old office lady who detests her job and the people she works with. She also dislikes her boss. Living in a tiny cubicle apartment with her pet rabbit Bunzo. Kumiko’s mother wants her to move back home, or get married, or to have a baby. As the quiet young woman does not really want to any of these, she fixates on the VHS and the buried money.

After the tape is eaten by her machine, she buys a new DVD copy of the film and a player. She draws her own treasure map and bribes a library guard into giving her a map of Minnesota.  When Kumiko’s boss gives her the company credit card to buy his wife an anniversary present, the woman takes the card and uses it to fly to America.

Described as a darkly comic film, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter elicits a similar feeling, after viewing,  to the 2006 film Memories of MatsukoOne cannot stop watching the young woman’s journey to the frozen wilds of Minnesota.  From the many odd people she meets to the end of her search for the briefcase of money, it is almost impossible not to be drawn into the tale.

Even without the knowledge that Kumiko’s journey is based upon the 2001 event which spawned an urban legend, the film is a compelling and an almost insanely intense experience. Rinko Kikuchi convinces thoroughly as the young office lady who lives in a fantasy world where buried treasure is there for the hunter to find.

After watching the character draw her own map, the beginning of the film immediately makes the viewer ask what prompted the discovery of the video tape. Was it another film? A book, or a television show?  Were they also based upon a “true story?”

Director Zellner does a masterful job of downplaying any fantastical elements of the story. Focusing instead upon Kumiko throughout.  We worry about this ill-prepared near-silent protagonist as she journeys to Fargo in search of the buried briefcase.  Despite the feeling of foreboding,  we believe  in her single minded determination to find the treasure  and that Kumiko will endure.

By the end of the film, Zellner, and Kikuchi show how the character is affected by the elements and the trials of her search.  The changing harsh landscape and elements combine to make things more unreal and strange.

Zellner as the helpful cop works well with Rinko and they two have a great chemistry. The scene where he takes the young woman to the local thrift store to get her some warmer clothes is brilliant. As he measures her feet,  the man does that “parent thing” of checking for the toe in the shoe. This  sets up the end of the scene brilliantly.  Kumiko misreads his attentions and he has to explain that he is married with two kids, something that we, the viewer, have already guessed by his actions.

As in the real story, the policeman takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant in an attempt to help the young lady to understand that the film  Fargo was not real.  This whimsical and melancholy  re-imaging of the 2001 urban legend is a film where the viewer roots for this unhappy misfit who  longs for adventure.

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter looks spectacular and throughout the film, Rinko’s appearance changes. At the start of the movie, the actress looks drawn and unhappy as well as every inch of her 29 years. As her journey progresses, she begins to look younger and despite the cold and little food, looks happier.

This award winning festival favorite has a musical score by The Octopus Project who actually won a Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Described by judges as mysterious and evocative, the music is indicative of the film itself.  This is a 5 star film and can be seen via Amazon, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play.  The Zellner Bros have made a film that could considered almost as classic as Fargo itself.

Do not miss this one.

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