A funny premise and a deadpan delivery count in its favor, but problems of plausibility keep Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter from succeeding as soon or as well as it could.
The Legend of Fargo
A Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) has a dead-end job. She works as an Office Lady (it’s capitalized in the subtitles). Apparently Office Ladies wear identical uniforms, work for low pay, and handle coffee, dry cleaning, and whatever errands a boss might want dream up. They also know to quit when they get married or reach 30. Kumiko is 29.
She has a dead-end social life, and she isn’t exactly Miss Congeniality, either. An old friend runs into her in the street. She invites Kumiko to coffee. Kumiko is awkward and painfully shy. When her friend goes to the bathroom, leaving her ten-year-old son with Kumiko, she can’t handle the pressure and runs away. At least her rabbit Bunzo keeps her company.
She has a VHS videotape — its origins are revealed in what surely must be a fantasy, as the iron oxide particles on a magnetic tape would rust in saltwater... but never mind. The videotape shows an American hiding $80,000 in a leather case along a nondescript stretch of highway, marked in the snow with a red ice scraper. Kumiko believes that this money is still hidden somewhere between Fargo, North Dakota, and Brainerd, Minnesota.
After all, the movie on the VHS tape, opens with “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
After embroidering her own treasure map based on actual footage from her TV screen, she makes her way to Minnesota, using her boss’ corporate credit card for expenses, and begins the ground-level search for the exact stretch of highway that hides the money.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is directed by David Zellner, and written by he and his brother Nathan Zellner. Sundance-goers might recognize the names, although this is my first experience with the Zellner brothers. Filmmaking team Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor executive produced.
The first part of the film takes place in Japan, and you might not at first recognize the film as a comedy. In the second part Kumiko comes to The New World. When she arrives at the Minneapolis airport, the film gets quirkier and funnier. One friendly Minnesotan takes her in; she knows a little about Japanese culture, having read Shogun. A helpful deputy, played by the director, seeks help translating from the proprietress of the local Chinese restaurant, you know, just in case. He preps Kumiko for the frigid weather with a visit to a thrift store.
There are occasional bursts of Miyazakian innocence and cinematography, like when Kumiko has to decide what to do with Bunzo before leaving for America, or her hotel blanket that becomes a rustic cape in the vast snowy North, or the bubbly Japanese tune over the end credits with the singing gradually turning into attention-seeking shouts.
Behind it all, I worried: is this all a one-joke story, stretched out into feature length?
Kumiko doesn’t give us much to latch on to. She not a very relatable character. She can’t teach us much about humanity because she herself seems to be more a joke than a person — at least at first.
Back in Japan she gets caught trying to steal an atlas from a public library. “It is my destiny,” she actually says. “Why didn’t you just make a photocopy,” asks the security guard. Kumiko’s answer is to try to bribe the guard with the coins and lint from her pocket.
I did get over my disbelief, more through my own willpower than anything the film conveyed. I rationalized that Kumiko has nothing else going on in her life. Her bad job is about to let her go. Her nagging mother can’t offer moral support without judgment. If a treasure map is all you’ve got, then maybe it’s sanest to just go with that.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Unlike Fargo, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is actually based on a true story. Unlike Fargo, it doesn’t claim to be. Had I realized sooner that a real person sought the Fargo dough, I might have spent less energy wondering what was going on and more time simply enjoying the absurdist film.
If you can get past the implausibility, you realize that the film offers this: that faith and hope are strong and always available, even when the rest of the world isn’t going your way.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter may be a little long and convoluted, but it has a good heart if you let it show you.