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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
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Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-



One never expects a film that owes its very existence to a much older, very well-known film to be truly unique, but Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter manages it. This is but one of its many great surprises.

Director and co-writer David Zellner plays with the notions of fiction and nonfiction, on multiple levels. The story of Kumiko is based on a modern Japanese legend, the widely accepted story of a young woman who traveled to Minnesota in search of the briefcase full of money that gets buried in the snow in the 1996 Coen Brothers film Fargo, believing the opening title card declaring it to be a true story. The story of the Japanese woman is only half-true; it turns out she didn't go to Minnesota to find the money, but rather to commit suicide -- but Zellner liked the legend better and based the movie on that.

I won't say whether Kumiko, the title character, actually dies in the end -- and, in a way, neither does Zellner. What can be said is the ending, much like the beginning, toys with what we're expected as viewers to accept as reality, and there could not have been any better way for it to end.

The film takes its time getting Kumiko to Minnesota, with what felt like half the movie taking place in Kumiko's home town of Tokyo. Rinko Kikuchi plays Kumiko with a unique blend of jadedness and naiveté, giving her a deluded tenacity with increasingly disturbing vigor.

The opening sequence itself flirts with a sort of fantasy, as we see Kumiko exploring a cave with a flashlight, and happening upon a buried sack containing an old VHS tape. The real-life story from which this movie uses as a jumping-off point occurred in 2001, and we might assume that's when Kumiko is set, since characters only seem to have flip phones, and she has easy access to both VCRs and DVD players. She dries out the VHS tape, discovering it to contain the movie Fargo, but it plays with horrible picture quality; eventually she buys it on DVD, obsessing over the scene where Steve Buscemi is seen burying. (That scene, and the opening title card, are the only clips we see of the movie -- several times in both cases.)

While it's fun to watch Fargo itself (as I did, the other day) in anticipation of seeing Kumiko, it's far from necessary. Kumiko's story isn't so much about Fargo on the whole as it is about that one scene, and her obsessive dissection of it, right down to needlepointing a map of the fence where the money gets left behind. Roughly halfway through this movie, after seeing her paralyzing social awkwardness and her stagnation at a job as an "Office Lady," Kumiko travels around the world to Minneapolis -- and tells everyone she meets that she wants to go to Fargo. Evidently she missed that only one scene in Fargo actually took place in that town.

But Kumiko meets a succession of Minnesotans as she goes on her own journey, which is sprinkled with some great humor even as her story gets subtly darker. Although we don't get any of the comical accents originally featured in Fargo, we do meet some pretty ignorant simpletons. An elderly widow offers her a place to stay and gives her a paperback copy of James Clavell's Shogun. A local police officer (played by Zellner himself), unable to communicate well with her, takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant, thinking they might be able to translate.

There's a lot of miscommunication, but this is just as much due to Kumiko's deluded obstinacy as it is cultural differences or language barriers. But there's something oddly compelling about Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter from beginning to end, both in Japan and in Minnesota. It's certainly shot beautifully in both places, offering several fantastic imagery, both of local scenery and of Kumiko's placement in it. Rarely does a film move from a place as urban as any in the world, to the rural snowy flat lands of the American Midwest, using the same character to make both places equally interesting. All of this comes together to make Kumiko a singular film that is truly its own.

Rinko Kikuchi is KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER.


Overall: B+
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