Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A doomed quest inspired by “Fargo”

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On one cold day of 2001 November, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Around that time, it was widely rumored that she came to Minnesota to search for that famous suitcase in “Fargo” (1996) while not knowing that its opening statement saying that it is based on a true story is no more than a small wry joke (To be frank with you, I also thought the movie was really inspired by a real-life incident when I saw it for the first time in early 1997).

Although this rumor turned out to be totally false (Konishi’s death was just a simple case of suicide caused by depression), it is utilized as an odd interesting premise in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”, a sad, despairing fictional tale of personal downward spiral. Its ill-fated heroine’s quest is already doomed as she sets her preposterous goal to get away from her miserable reality, and we can only observe her hopeless journey gradually taking its inevitable route to more despair and madness.

Kumiko is a 29-year old Japanese office worker in Tokyo, and we see how she barely endures her unhappy and unremarkable daily life. At her workplace, this young introverted woman is mostly separated from her co-workers, and her direct boss, an ineffectual guy who seems to be merely occupying his position, treats her like his personal maid while considering replacing her with a younger (and prettier) employee.

She does not get much consolation from her personal life either. She has no particular close friend around her, and she is not so glad to see her old schoolmate when they happen to come across each other on the street. She sometimes speaks with her mother on the phone, and her mother keeps emphasizing to her that she really should find and marry someone before she becomes too old to be eligible for marriage. She is living alone in a squalid one-room residence, and her cute pet rabbit is the sole bright spot in its gloomy interior.

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It is quite clear from her aloof, passive appearance that she has been in the serious need of some psychiatric help, and that is more apparent when she becomes obsessed with something very unreal. As shown from the opening scene unfolded in a beach area outside the city, she discovered a ‘clue’ hidden inside the beach cave through some crude map in her possession (the movie is rather vague about where the hell she got that map from), and she adamantly comes to believe that it will lead her to a certain treasure.

That ‘clue’ in question is none other than an old VHS copy of “Fargo”, and Kumiko frequently replays the scene where Steve Buscemi’s bumbling character buries a suitcase filled with money in a snowy field of Minnesota just for keeping it all to himself. She goes to a local library to get more information about Minnesota, and her misdemeanor involved with an atlas in the library leads to one deadpan confrontation with a library security guard. When she faces a serious problem familiar to anyone who has ever used VHS player, she buys a better equipment for her deranged shot-by-shot analysis. It never occurs to her that she is watching a mere fiction, and we cannot help but be amused to see her measuring and calculating the width of the wire fence shown in the scene for finding the exact spot where the suitcase is buried.

She eventually flies to Minnesota after she gets an opportunity by chance, but, not so surprisingly, she becomes lost and confused as soon as she sets her foot on this alien world, and her situation gets worse despite the kindness of a few strangers she meet on her way. While she walks along the road alone under the cold, harsh winter weather of Minnesota, she comes across an old lady, and this generous lady takes Kumiko to her cozy country house. She gets some momentary comfort there thanks to the old lady’s warm hospitality, but that does not last that long due to her increasing obsession on her treasure.

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As stubbornly continuing her journey on the road, Kumiko encounters a local policeman later in the story. Genuinely feeling sorry for her, he tries to get her out of her incorrigible delusion, but she defiantly remains fixated on going to Fargo for finding that suitcase (does it ever come to her misguided mind that Fargo is not in Minnesota but in North Dakota?). After one dryly amusing moment at a local Chinese restaurant, the policeman tries to help her more, but his sincere intention results in an awkward and painful moment of misunderstanding, which ultimately seals her fate in the end.

The director David Zellner, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Nathan Zellner (they also appear as substantial supporting characters in the film, by the way), did a good job of establishing two contrasting atmospheres for his story. While its first half in Tokyo feels drab and clinical, many scenes during the second half chill us through that cold, forlorn beauty of the wintry landscapes of Minnesota, and Rinko Kikuchi, who looks more dour and plain than her feisty turn in “Pacific Rim” (2013), gives a strong performance to hold the movie, though her character is difficult for us to emphasize with even during the finale where her character goes further with her dark impulse.

Compared to “Fargo” or the recent TV series inspired by that great film, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is a minor work, and I watched its narrative progress from the distance while occasionally amused by its small whimsical touches, but I guess it is probably worthwhile to watch for its good mood and Kikuchi’s performance at least. Our poor girl wishes to escape from her purgatorial world, but, alas, she only comes into another kind of purgatory – and she would rather be stuck in it.

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