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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Many circumstances surrounding Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter leave it open to the vagaries of whimsy. It’s based on a true story: Japanese traveler Takako Konishi froze to death in Minnesota. The embellishment that’s since made it an urban legend claimed that her motive in traveling from Japan was to find the buried treasure from the 1996 Coen brothers film Fargo. In reality, it was apparently a planned suicide in the hometown of an ex-boyfriend. Still, the legend has that crazy-fan frisson that cries out to be mythologized.

It would have been easy for the Zellner brothers to make this a tale of obsession in the media age, in which Kumiko finds something so immersive she can’t help but turn into a believer. Luckily, the brothers know better. Not that their script is entirely free of its indie-movie cliches—including its own opening fixation on Fargo’s “Based on a True Story” disclaimer—but the restrained direction and the absolutely magnetic presence of Rinko Kikuchi keep it well away from the precipice of twee. Instead, it’s a crushing portrait of isolation, as all-encompassing and inexplicable to the film as it seems, at times, to be to Kumiko. She doesn’t understand why the world fills with white noise; all she knows is she can’t stand it, and Fargo’s clean, white expanse of snow, with its solvable red marker, is all that makes sense. Meeting other people isn’t a lifeline, but a station of the cross to be borne only long enough to reach isolation again. And even Kumiko seems surprised to discover she feels the treasure is worth searching for. Her decisive moments seem to startle her as much as anyone else, as if her determination is an engine she happens to be sitting on when it moves. In a movie so focused on her isolation, this dulled surprise is a final confirmation—a sign of her isolation from herself.

It’s likely a sign of Fargo’s cultural impression that after I finished Kumiko—and its ending is every inch the surreal fable you might imagine—I thought the saddest image of the movie wasn’t any of the humiliations Kumiko suffers for not being engaged with her life. It wasn’t even the inevitable closing moments, an untouched expanse of white whose metaphorical implications can’t be missed. (In fact, by the time Kumiko had entered the final, stylized act of her search, I was relieved. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance grips you so hard that when she gathers the determination to keep looking, even as it seems like suicide by Quixote, it carries the triumph of a battle scene.) For me, the film’s saddest image is Kumiko watching Fargo in the first place, speeding again and again to the suitcase of cash and past the grounded, omniscient majesty of Marge Gunderson—the thing in Fargo that elevated it from ruthless satire to masterpiece.

Still, it makes sense. As if anticipating potential misreading from the inevitable connections to the real-world tale and the black comedy from which the film borrows its treasure, its winter, and its surreal locals, the Zellner brothers neatly undercut any suggestion of quirky comedy or Wes-Andersonian whimsy by removing anything in Kumiko’s affect or actions that could be mistaken for fandom. Kumiko isn’t a search for the comforts of fiction or an attempt to connect with a sheriff as beatific and unquestioned as any real-world deity. The treasure is just the crystallization of a fixation that would, as Kikuchi’s every hungry stare implies, have landed on something eventually.

Movies like this tend to feel the burden of expectation. Though it has little in common with Upstream Color, the science-fiction trauma-recovery romance adrift with audiences searching for particular genres, Kumiko might face similar too-much-but-not-enough accusations: Too surreal to be the sort of down-to-earth and ultimately optimistic character piece that we tend to like in our depression stories, and too emotionally present to be comforting in its surreality. (A scene in which a sheriff takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant for translation is both grimly hilarious and palpably awkward for everyone involved.) But I hope Kumiko, as odd and as dark as it is, gets seen. Kikuchi alone would be worth the price of admission, but there can be catharsis as much from the doomed as from the blessed, and Kumiko does it very well.

(Originally published in Philly Weekly/Philly Now on April 1, 2015.)