VOD film review: Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter
The limbo in between9
James R | On 05, Jul 2015
Director: David Zellner
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard
“This is a true story. 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.”
So begins the Coen brothers’ 1997 classic Fargo, an introduction that playfully toys with the boundary between reality and fiction. Did the events really take place? No. But you could almost believe they did.
So also begins Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, a 2014 film about a Japanese girl who famously followed Fargo’s footsteps back to Minnesota to find the treasure buried by Steve Buscemi’s character during the movie. The fact that it’s also made by a pair of brothers – David and Nathan Zellner – automatically leaves you seeking out the similarities between them.
The fate of the girl in real life, Takako Konishi, was shared around the world, thanks to a wave of strange-but-true news reports, which echoed exactly the same kind of fascination that Fargo’s bleakly brilliant deception fed upon. “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept,” the Coens ultimately declared, after being accused of cheating their viewers.
The Zellners, in filling in the blanks of Takako’s international pilgrimage, are just as aware of the magic of storytelling. Their fictionalised version of Kumiko (Kikuchi) is an office worker in Tokyo, who spends her days fulfilling the unfulfilling requests of her boss and tolerating the intolerant comments of her mother. At the age of 29, she is now considered too old for her single lifestyle – convention dictates that she should be married with kids or climbing the career ladder. The poignant parallels between her and her pet rabbit, Bunzo, who lives in a tiny cage in her tiny apartment, are left unsaid.
The only thing that keeps her going? A battered VHS copy of Fargo, which she comes across one day. She soon becomes obsessed with the film’s promise of treasure: an overlooked pot of gold just waiting for the right person to come along and discover it. And so she flees to pursue her American dream – a journey that the Zellners capture with moving sympathy.
Rinko Kikuchi, who has impressed in projects as varied as Pacific Rim and Babel, is magnetic to watch. It’s a physical performance more than a verbal one, channeling Kumiko’s hopes and loneliness into her face, her obedient nod and even her walk. That becomes even more apparent when she arrives in Minnesota, where people can’t get over the language barrier between them – one sequence sees them contact all the Chinese takeaway owners in town, only to discover that, of course, they don’t speak Japanese.
While Kikuchi brings an emotional clout to Kumiko’s portrayal, these kind of tiny details turn it into an intelligent piece of cinema. The locals, particularly the gentle Sheriff, are pitched somewhere between clueless, kind and comic – in other words, exactly the kind of folk who could easily belong in a Coen brothers film. There’s an awareness that, just as the Coens stitched together their own narrative 18 years ago, our duo are doing the same, projecting ideas upon Kumiko as much as she does upon her false image of this small community.
Shot beautifully by DoP Sean Porter, the snowy landscapes take on a mythic quality that’s boosted by the bright red coat worn by Kumiko, which carries shades of Red Riding Hood. Indeed, the allure of this urban legend has attracted other film-makers to do a similar thing, notably Paul Berczeller, who directed a 25-minute documentary, This Is a True Story, in 2003. The result is a slight, but intriguing examination of the line between truth and fiction. Did the events of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter really take place? No, but you could believe they did. And, once you learn the truth, you may well prefer to.