Back in 2014, I was lucky enough to see Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at the Toronto After Dark Film Fest. A darkly comic tale with almost whimsical sensibilities, the film captured my imagination and was my top pick from the festival. Three years later, Kumiko has re-entered my life as a new title available on the Sundance Now streaming service. To celebrate, I thought I would share with you my original review of the film.
Based on an urban legend, the film revolves around Kumiko (played by Pacific Rim‘s Rinko Kikuchi) as she sets out on a grand adventure. Her life in Tokyo is mundane and not fulfilling as she works a 9-to-5 office job and has no real friends aside from her bunny, Bunzo. Her only real joy in life is studying an old VHS tape of the movie Fargo. She watches certain moments over and over, rewinding and fast-forwarding to the point of wear and tear, searching for clues. You see, she does not see the film as a fiction but instead as a video treasure map. Seeing herself like a modern day Spanish Conquistador, she believes that she has found the key to attaining great treasure (the money that Steve Buscemi buries in a field in the third act of the Coens’ film) and plans to make her way to the Americas (Minnesota) to prove her discovery.
When she finally does make the trip, the results are interesting to say the least. Surprisingly, she finds a number of helpful folks who are tasked with both giving her the help she needs and the uneasy job of trying to explain to her the difference between the movies and reality.
Going into a film like this, it’s important to be in the right head space. As an audience, we know that the goal that Kumiko is attempting to reach is unattainable. But even though logic would suggest otherwise, Kumiko is unable to see the absurdity in her own mission, even when smacked with it head on. So the viewer must make the choice to follow Kumiko in her journey even though we’re pretty sure that this story may not end well. Thanks to the story structure of the film, this is an easy sell. At the beginning of the picture, when Kumiko is living her “normal” life in Tokyo, everything is presented as boring and drab. There is a deliberate slow pace and the characters who interact with Kumiko (her boss, her mother, the women at her work) are presented as negative and antagonistic. Intentionally or not, they each push her towards her pending quest. There are moments when you might think that the whole film will take place solely in Japan, but as Kumiko becomes more desperate and restless in her own life, we see a light at the end of the tunnel and the adventure part of the film takes shape.
When we get to Minnesota, the interactions with other characters become more interesting as there are both cultural and language barriers that stand in Kumiko’s way of traveling to Fargo, North Dakota. What I found really interesting was the number of people that Kumiko runs into that truly want to help, even if they cannot help her in the way she would like. What makes these interactions even more interesting is that while the other characters are very grounded in the real world, Kumiko gives off a fairy tale-like vibe as a character in a story book that sees a definitive end in sight. One that will solve all her problems. This juxtaposition places the progression of the piece in the performers’ hands and thankfully, they take the ball and run with it.
It would be an understatement to say the film lives or dies on Rinko Kikuchi’s performance. We are with her the entire film as she is the focus of every scene. The character she plays must be interesting but standoffish for most of the film, feeling isolated in both Tokyo and Minnesota for different reasons. She’s quiet, jaded and uneasy. These are traits that make it hard to create an endearing character that the audience will find engaging and be willing to cheer on for an hour and forty-five minutes. Amazingly, Rinko is able to pull this off and by the end of the film, you can’t help but fall for this women despite the fact that there is something obviously wrong with her mental health.
The supporting cast does a good job as well. I especially enjoyed the performance given from director David Zellner, who shows up in the back half of the film as a fumbling yet concerned police officer. His actions are sincere and there is an instant on-screen chemistry between him and Rinko. The performance rides the line between humourous and sweet, which can also best describe the second and third acts of the film.
If you’re looking for an interesting character piece that plays with the idea of mixing fantasy and reality in a grounded structure, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is for you. If you’re willing to let yourself be taken on the journey this film is offering, the rewards are many and might be just as fulfilling as finding a briefcase full of cash buried in the snow…..okay, maybe not that fulfilling, but it’s worth your time.
Check out Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter currently streaming on Sundance Now.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!