Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the lastest film by brothers David and Nathan Zellner, was inspired by the urban legend of a Japanese woman who traveled to Minnesota looking for the briefcase full of money that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in the middle of nowhere in the movie Fargo. Despite the brotherly duo connections between the two movies, I find that Kumiko shares more similarities -at least thematically- with another nineties movie: Thelma and Louise.
Thelma and Louise is awesome. It is, of course, one of the two truly good movies in the career of director Ridley Scott. It has also, however, been the subject of critics who condemn the movie’s ending. Spoiler alert, but a lot of people don’t like the fact that Thelma and Louise die at the end of the movie. They see this development patriarchal punishment on part of the study that wouldn’t allow us to have two female heroes who stand up for themselves and live to tell the tale. Now, I don’t know where it came from, but I would argue that the patriarchal punishment is precisely what makes Thelma and Louise such a powerful movie. I mean, if Thelma and Louise lived, wouldn’t the whole movie be a silly fantasy instead of a truthful tragedy?
Now, I don’t want to go too much into spoilers for Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but it strikes me as very thematically similar to Thelma and Louise. Our protagonist is Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi). She is 29 years old, and very depressed. She works as an “office lady”, which means she is basically a servant to a older male superior. At the same time, she is constantly reminded by her co-workers, boss, and family of the fact that she hasn’t married yet. Kumiko is trapped in an oppressive world, but finds solace in an old and worn-out copy of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, and the thought that untold riches will be awaiting when she, like a Spanish Conquistador, travels to the Americas.
I probably don’t need to tell you that this is a futile quest. Kumiko’s big journey takes her to Minesota, and exotic locales such as a shoe store and a chinese restaurant. You can see the irony there, and yes, the Zellners find a lot of comedy in this ridiculous premise. Most importantly, that comedy never comes at Kumiko’s expense. Based on the facts, one could only conclude that Kumiko is either crazy, or simply dumb, for believing in the existence of the buried briefcase, but who could blame her for giving into such a fantasy when her world is as absurd, banal and bland as it is presented to us by the Zellners.
It is true that if the themes behind Kumiko are a little familiar, the Zellner brothers do a fantastic job of putting them in an exciting new package. Their approach is to turn the movie into a sensorial experience. Thus, you have the cinematography by Sean Porter, that turns Minnesota into a wide-screen tundra, and the eery score by The Octopus Project, which paired with a fantastic work of sound mixing, present us with unique vignettes.
Among the dreamy sequences, and the absurdity, the Zellners show a beating heart, and a deep interest in human feeling. This is evident in the section of the movie in which Kumiko meets a deputy chief of police played by David Zellner, who is wonderfully confused and earnest in his intentions. And while we’re in the subject of performance, I must praise Kikuchi, who shows amazing comedic timing, and the ability to make her face interesting enough as to practically carry a whole movie. The internal and external demands of the performance are almost opposite, and Kikuchi excels at both.
This effectively constructed package houses a touching movie. An honest portrayal of depression, and a fantastical dream about escaping and finding new horizons. This is not so much a meta-filmic narrative about the power of film, as it is about art as a tool for escape, and a literal dream factory. It is a story about the mind as a beautiful tool for survival in the context of a deadly environment. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is a welcomed addition to a recent trend of movies that, like The Tale of the Princes Kaguya and Girlhood, are complex and satisfying portrayals of young women refusing to be defined by the world around them.
Grade: 8 out of 10