Sundance Review: 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter'

“I am like a Spanish Conquistador. Recently, I’ve learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas.”

So Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a peculiar 29-year-old clerk who shares a decomposing Tokyo apartment with her pet rabbit Bunzo, confesses to the nonplussed security guard of her local library after she’s attempted to steal a book of maps. The “untold riches” to which Kumiko refers are the unclaimed bricks of prop cash that – towards the end of the seminal 1996 film “Fargo” – Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buried beside an anonymous stretch of highway somewhere near Brainerd, Minnesota.

Kumiko, who ostensibly seems to understand that Ethan and Joel’s frigid crime saga is a work of fiction, is nevertheless convinced that the money is still there for the taking, waiting beneath the snow for an enterprising treasure hunter to unearth the small fortune and wrest it into reality. It’s an idea that first occurred to Kumiko after she stumbled upon a VCR-shaped slot of rock on the shore of a desolate Japanese beach and found a worn videotape of “Fargo” waiting for her inside the cave’s oblivion.

This is a true story.

...Which is not to say this is a story that actually happened.

Self-reflexivity has always been one of the cinema’s most natural and frequently occurring impulses, and David and Nathan Zellner's “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” continues a tradition forged by examples as disparate as “Sherlock Jr.” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in how it explicitly articulates the idea that only the most useless of movies are confined to the screen on which they play. In fact, one of the most compelling undercurrents of the digital revolution and the ubiquitous availability of streaming content is that it’s becoming more difficult for viewers to identify where the cinema ends and life begins. Perhaps the unmoored circumstances through which people increasingly engage with movies will elucidate why trying to separate fact from fiction in a film is ultimately as impossible as trying to separate sugar from eggs in a cake.

The blissful “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” opens with a scrawl of warped text claiming that “This is a true story”, but the barely legible title card is borrowed from another film. It’s not enough for Ethan and Joel Coen to make great films, they must also make great films possible. Of course, "Fargo" didn't exactly stick to the facts, or even really make it clear to what story it was supposedly being true. The brief statement with which the Coen brothers' crime drama began was something between a stretch and a joke, and the Zellner brothers' equally brilliant but virtually unclassifiable film shares a similar relationship to the truth. The details as to how the Zellners tweaked this particular tale are as interesting as they are completely irrelevant – "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" isn't about divining the difference between fact and fiction, but rather about how the two are inextricably entwined.

Less of an homage to "Fargo" than the next appendage of the same exquisite corpse, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" plays like a dryly hilarious riff on "Don't Look Now", but the woman in the red coat has been recast as the lead and transformed into a magical fool like one of Lars von Trier's Golden Hearts. Tokyo is arguably the most photogenic city on Earth, but Kumiko's Japan is a place that refuses to be flattered, cinematographer Sean Porter shooting it through a thick gauze of cold decay, as though the entire metropolis is on the verge of a psychic collapse. By contrast, Kumiko's "Fargo" VHS tape beams into her dank living room like a transmission from another world – less of a movie than a hologram, it calls to her with the urgency that Princess Leia summoned Obi-Wan Kenobi, Kumiko's unblinking face pressed against her television as though she were watching the cursed video from "Ringu". She doesn't even watch the film all the way through, she just scans forward to the part where Buscemi buries the cash, rewinding and re-watching until she can sew herself a makeshift map.

Almost permanently ensconced inside of her red coat (which she later supplements with a makeshift motel blanket, knowingly invoking one version of "The Ballad of Narayama" or another), Kumiko avoids human contact whenever possible. She sits silently at the perimeter of gossipy conversations at work, she shuts down when a friend tries to catch up with her in the street, and she dangles gobs of spit into her boss' coffee, perhaps out of revenge for his rigid philosophy as to how girls like Kumiko should be living their lives.

The greatness of Rinko Kikuchi's performance is that – at least at first – she makes it impossible to tell whether Kumiko is genuinely troubled or if she's simply fallen through the cracks, a free radical in a culture where everything knows its place. The genius of Kikuchi's performance is that – by the end – her slow descent into mania humanizes Kumiko precisely when it would have been so easy to reduce her into caricature.

We may not be able to understand how Kumiko reconciles the fact that "Fargo" is a movie with her belief that there's treasure waiting for her out in the snows of Minnesota, but one look at Kikuchi's face is enough to understand that she can. Kikuchi is so present as an actor, so in control of her role, that she allows the film to careen from laugh-out-loud physical comedy to deeply unsettling psychological drama without ever betraying the reality of its deranged heroine. Kikuchi's reaction shots are better than most professional actors' entire reels – her evolving pronunciation of the word "Fargo" is enough  in and of itself to make this a truly unforgettable performance.

The film's carefully austere compositions almost never lose sight of Kumiko, the Zellner brothers using the bare minimum shots required for expression. Any film told with an unyielding focus on an obsessively single-minded protagonist inevitably invites comparisons to the Dardenne brothers (of whom both the Zellners and Kikuchi are avowed fans), but the comparative stiffness of the visuals in "Kumiko" forgoes immediacy in favor of unreality. If a Dardenne film is fable, "Kumiko" is folklore. If a Dardenne film is a head rush, "Kumiko" is a splinter, picking at the integrity of the world as we can see it until it starts to bleed. The camera takes a special pleasure in following Kumiko through perfectly geometric aisles, the anxious girl hurrying down convenience store corridors in both Tokyo and Minnesota like a mouse looking for the exit of a maze.

Kumiko's desperate search is made even more palpable for us via the soundscapes created by the Zellner brothers' frequent collaborators, The Octopus Project, whose work earned the film a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Musical Score at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The molten music is so unobtrusively reactive to Kumiko's mental state that it might as well be emanating from behind her eyes – this is truly a headphones movie, where every sound is transformed by how Kumiko hears it. The whine of an espresso maker becomes a psychotic primal scream, the noise her VCR player makes as it ejects a tape couldn't be any more physically transformative if Kumiko were watching "Videodrome". By the time the indelible "Fargo" theme begins to filter through the otherwise alien soundtrack, the film achieves such a sublime and singular sense of purpose that Kumiko's delirium can't be separated from her destiny.

And why should it be? "Kumiko" admittedly treads delicate ground as it inflates the symptoms of mental illness into the stuff of a mythical quest, but this isn't a film about how certain fictions take root in our minds so much as it's a film about why. "Kumiko" never gets cute with its "Fargo" references because it's crucially not in direct conversation with that movie. It would be more accurate to say that "Fargo" is whispering into the ear of the Zellners' film, a strange and perfect moment in the ultimate game of telephone. Who knows what the message will sound like by the time it gets to you.

It's as the title card reads: "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. This is a true story."

By the end of Kumiko's journey, you'll be inclined to agree.

SCORE: 9.1 / 10

A quick (but urgent) word about Bunzo. Kumiko's pet rabbit is the "Llewyn's cat" of 2014, and might just be the single most bittersweet bunny the movies have known since “Watership Down”. Bunzo, you guys. Bunzo forever. #TeamBunzo

Latest News