Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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The Coen Brothers’ cherished 1996 film Fargo opens with text reading “This is a true story.” Of course, Fargo is almost entirely untrue, but those simple words were all that were needed to suspend our disbelief, to take us in, even if for only 98 minutes. A cheap trick, sure, but a successful one. Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1996. Such is the power of a motion picture, to get you to believe, to make you accept the uncanny. A dangerous power, indeed. One that consumes Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a 29 year old office worker in Tokyo, the heroine of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a revelatory postmodern adventure of immense cultural significance.

Kumiko begings with a discovery – on the shores of Japan, our heroine finds a VHS tape buried in a cave. It’s Fargo, and the words “This is a true story” become her gospel. She spends her nights obsessively poring over the film, mapping her way to the money buried by Steve Buscemi’s character toward its end. The money is her treasure and her destiny. She likens herself to the Spanish conquistadors that would learn of nearby gold from Native Americans. Leaving behind her bleak life in Tokyo, she flies to Minnesota determined against all odds to trek north and collect what is rightfully hers.

Kumiko will frustrate you. Both the film and the character. She is quixotic to a fault and her total aversion to any social interaction isn’t quirky or relatable. This isn’t Daria – Kumiko is an undeniably deranged young woman. While her questionable decisions are tinged with black comedy and may elicit laughter, they point to a truly unstable individual devoid of any sense of pragmatism. And yet, you would be hard-pressed to not find yourself rooting for her by the end, forgoing reality and hoping against all hope that this impossible thing may just be real.

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As for the film itself, it purposefully exists in the space between cultures. It is the language barrier. It is that moment when two people are unable to connect despite all efforts. You want to help, you want to do better, but the divide is too great. Director David Zellner (who co-wrote the film with his brother, Nathan – an interestingly similar dynamic to the Coens’) does a magnificent job of stocking the film with cultural clashes and complementing them with beautifully arresting imagery – the most iconic of which is Kumiko wrapped in red in a snowy field (something that surely doesn’t belong). The film also serves to challenge traditional Japanese gender expectations. Kumiko is incessantly nagged by her mother to either get married or move back home. There are no other options. Her boss challenges her situation similarly, even going so far as to question her sexuality. This even more greatly reinforces not only the viewer’s empathy, but hope for Kumiko – she is a cultural rebel and a champion of individualism.

Whether or not Kumiko finds her treasure is irrelevant. Like every great adventure movie, it’s the journey that matters. That Kumiko’s is one that assaults rationale makes it all the more engaging. It may seem like some things don’t make sense, but that’s because sometimes, in the real world, things just don’t. If you let it, this film will take you. It will suspend your disbelief, restore your wonder, and have you asking right alongside her, “How I go Fargo?”

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