Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Director: David Zellner

Writer-director David Zellner presents an unusual tale of a Japanese office worker who escapes the daily grind to go in search of the buried treasure from ‘Fargo’.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an office worker in her late twenties, forced to endure the usual small-minded sermons from her boss and her mother about the importance of promotions and marriage. When she’s not feeding cup noodles to her pet rabbit, Kumiko intently studies an old video cassette of ‘Fargo’, naively seeing the movie as documentary and analysing with forensic precision the location of Steve Buscemi’s character as he stashes a suitcase full of ransom money. Leaving her dreary life behind, Kumiko sets out on a quest to uncover the buried treasure.

‘Kumiko’ stars Rinko Kikuchi, who became a household name with her breakout performance in the 2006 Alejandro González Iñárritu film 'Babel’, a role for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She also appeared as Naoko in Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of the Murakami classic ‘Norwegian Wood’. Taking on the lead role in ‘Kumiko’, she gives an eccentric and captivating performance that saw her nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.

This film was written by the brother team of David and Nathan Zellner (both of whom appear in the film) inspired by the urban legend of a real life Japanese woman who supposedly did go looking for the ‘treasure’. Long takes and long shots contribute to the unique visual style presented throughout, and the discordant and unsettling synthesised music of American Indietronica band ‘The Octopus Project’ further imbues the film with strangeness.

To give some background on the inspiration for this film, ‘Fargo’, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is often lauded as one of the great American films of all time. The opening graphic states that the film is based on true events (it isn’t) and tells the story of a man who stages the kidnapping of his wife to extort ransom money from his rich father-in-law. Events quickly spiral out of control, and many innocent (and not so innocent) people wind up dead.

Fittingly, ‘Kumiko’ in many ways serves as a spiritual companion piece to ‘Fargo’ - not only with its bleak winter setting, but also with its emotional body count. While Fargo’s criminals murder and double deal, Kumiko also treads on many toes in single-minded pursuit of her goal, leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills and betrayed expectations. The folksy dialogue of the policeman character (played by director David Zellner) also recalls Frances McDormand’s heavily pregnant police officer from ‘Fargo’.

Indeed, McDormand’s famous line criticising one of the criminals for causing so much carnage 'just for a bit of money' (though it is never referenced in ‘Kumiko’) has a different kind of resonance in the context of this film. It’s hard to know whether to be excited or feel pity for Kumiko as she likens herself to an explorer (in an age where there are few remaining frontiers), but there is a general sense of the film being a cautionary tale against blind ambition, forging ahead regardless of the personal cost and the impact on those around you.

That said, while it dares us to treat Kumiko’s quest as pathetic, phoney or even self-destructive, the film mostly shows empathy. Her journey, and liberation from those who would keep her tied down, feel somehow inspirational.

‘It’s not fake!’ says Kumiko tearfully in a poignant scene. Kumiko is a complex and compelling character, and her behaviour is charming, puzzling, and full of pathos. The film’s grandiose title hints at Kumiko’s transcendence of the ordinary and eventual ascent into legend, but often her actions are anything but saintly. Here the film makes an interesting point about the narrative that we make out of our lives, the dichotomy between our own self-image and how we are seen by others, and how both can simultaneously be true.

The result is an oddly fascinating portrait of ambition, adventure and human relationships that will offer different interpretations depending on the viewer.


Introduced by Greg Corbett  

Greg Corbett has been visiting Japan since 1998. He has a keen interest in Japanese language and culture, and helps to organise a number of Japanese cultural events in Adelaide.