Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter Review
Like a conquistador, Kumiko dreams of finding unclaimed loot in the Americas, a ticket to a better life. Her guide and map is a VHS of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, found buried in a cave by the beach, under whelks and scuttling hermit crabs. Every night, coming home from a deadening office job, and escaping calls from a mother whose only concerns are getting her married or promoted, Kumiko scrutinises her television screen for clues. In the Coen brothers film, Steve Buscemi is burrowing through snow to hide a case of money by a wire fence - the location of which she maps out with cloth and pages from a stolen Atlas.
The genius of David Zellner’s film resides in inhabiting two contrasting cultures from the perspective of an individual estranged by despair. Kumiko is alienated within her own society, which sees her as a failure. She has no prospect of marriage, or children. Using clever costuming, Zellner shows how she does not care for make-up, clothes, or hair, unlike her polished colleagues and friends, whose conversations revolve around eyelash perms and their cost. At the age of twenty-nine, Kumiko is an Office Lady, and her patronising boss thinks her too old for the job, and certainly not worthy of more responsibility. Her only relationship carrying any emotional value is with Bunzo, her adorable brown rabbit. No wonder then, that she is depressed and looking for a bright escape from her instant noodle evenings in her dreary flat.
In contrast to Kumiko’s career and family driven world, Minnesota is full of friendly, but mostly self-absorbed individuals. People are eager to lend a hand in order to talk about themselves, whether it is the in-fighting of various religious groups providing tourists help at the airport, or equivocating Japan with ‘Shogun’, a popular American novel. No one thinks Fargo is a good place to go, so no one offers to take Kumiko, or point her in the right direction. Minnesota is best seen through its malls, the locals advise. The only character to escape these stereotypes is a policeman, whose anxiety to be of use is endearing. But like the others, he does not believe in Fargo’s promise.
Hounded by angry calls from her mother, Kumiko soon finds herself trapped between two environments who fail to understand her. She ventures into the wilds of Minnesota, undeterred by her lack of suitable clothes or money. The cruel, blunt wintry landscapes engulf her and enhance her loneliness.
Rinko Kikuchi is tremendous as Kumiko. Her acting simultaneously shows her as young and naïve, old and jaded. She is just as capable of quiet, calculated insubordination to her employer as well as an unshakable, childish belief in the truth of fiction. David Zellner takes on the role of the policeman who shows her most kindness, his eagerness to help matching her credulity. Co-writer and brother to the director Nathan Zellner also stars in a small part.
In many ways, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a wretched portrayal of modern life, with an allowance for scarce touches of humour. It seems that in order to survive, individuals who don’t conform must hang on to fake, mad dreams – these are better than admitting the truth, which has no way of being overcome. Herein lies Kumiko’s iron determination to reach Fargo, defying all common sense and physical comforts. Her fearlessness is at the same time astonishing and wholly believable. We are left to wonder how many other lost souls are wondering about the world.