The Coen Brothers are notorious for their liberal interpretation of “based on a true story”. The best example can be found in the 1996 gem Fargo, a film that opens with a stark message claiming that the crime tale was inspired by a true event. It is obvious to most that it was indeed a work of fiction, but there were some, in the current era where the line between fiction and reality in entertainment has become blurred, who fell for its proclaim validity. In 2001 reports surfaced of a Japanese woman being so convinced that Fargo was real that she ventured to the United States in search of the money that Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter had buried in the film.
The strange way in which a construction of fantasy can have such a profound impact on a person’s reality is what is at the heart of David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. In the film Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a lowly office clerk who lives with her pet rabbit Bunzo. Unable to identify with her gossipy coworkers, and seemingly averse to communicating with old school classmates via cell phones, Kumiko lives a rather solitary life much to the chagrin of her disapproving mother. The only form of solace comes from her worn out VHS copy of Fargo which she studies religiously.
Believing that there really is money buried, and fed up with her current existence, Kumiko embarks on a journey to Minnesota with nothing more than a stolen map and a red coat. Comparing herself to “a Spanish Conquistador” in search of untold riches, even wearing a motel blanket like a multi-coloured poncho at one point, Kumiko refuses to let anything, even Mother Nature, get in her way.
The captivating thing about Kumiko’s journey is the way in which the Zellner Brothers handle her mental state. Though she clearly has issues dealing with reality – she is shown initially finding the VHS tape buried in a cave near the ocean – it is often those around her who actually come off as being odd. It is one of the reasons why Kumiko is such a fascinating and heartbreaking character. Kikuchi, proving once again why she is one of the most underrated actors working today, absolutely nails Kumiko’s off-kilter humanity.
Playing like a fever dream, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a filled with mesmerizing cinematography and wonderful sound design. The stark white landscape juxtaposed with her colourful clothing brings a hypnotic feel to the bittersweet tone that flows throughout the film. Similar to a version of Little Red Riding Hood in the dense snowy woods, Kumiko’s big bad wolf is ultimately her own mind. The Zellner Brothers’ script is not so much concerned with whether or not Kumiko knows that her quest is futile, but rather the warped way that she has convinced herself that the journey has meaning.
Filled with a visual richness that would make even the Coen Brothers smile in approval, and anchored by outstanding performance from Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a film that captures the issue of mental illness in a rather poetic way. Though the deliberately measured pacing may turn off some, it works nicely within the context of the film. Uncompromising and captivating at the same time, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a wonderful film that you simply need to sit back and let its dreamlike allure wash over you.