By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist January 23, 2014 at 1:42PM
Living in a cramped Tokyo apartment while holding down an unfulfilling job, the lonely and disenchanted Kumiko yearns for something deeper in her life. Much of her alienation stems from the weight of expectations around her. An “OL” (office lady) for a Japanese businessman, she mechanically goes through the motions of her job fetching him tea and dropping off and picking up his laundry. Quieter, and thus odder, than everyone else, Kumiko unfortunately stands out. Her fussy thinks it’s strange that a 29-year-old woman does not have a fiancé, husband or children and notes that by 30, most OLs have gone on to other careers. Does she have bigger plans? Is she thinking about her future? For the largely stuck-in-a-rut Kumiko, these are difficult questions not only to answer, but to address for herself.
She is also hounded by her mother's expectations. Where has she been? What is she doing? Has she found a man yet, and if not, what’s taking so long? Introverted and shy, these interrogations only have the effect of making Kumiko further retreat into her own dimly lit apartment, to escape from the world outside, where her one companion is her cute, furry bunny Bunzo. One day while going for a walk on the shore, Kumiko enters a little cavern by the beach and after digging through loose mud, discovers a wet, soggy VHS tape. When she salvages what she can of the tape, she puts it in to discover a bloodied man, on the lam, hiding a briefcase full of money by a wintry landscape in North Dakota.
Kumiko is watching Steve Buscemi in “Fargo,” but entranced by the hazy, broken images of the VHS tape and her mysterious discovery, the young girl believes the video imagery is some kind of divine message she should chase. Exhibiting even more bizarrely divergent behavior, she steals an American atlas from a library and when, as a kind of test at work, she's given access to the company’s business credit card, she puts her wordless plan into action. Kumiko reluctantly lets go of Bunzo by leaving him on an abandoned subway car, and before she can even articulate her intentions further she takes a plane to Minnesota: Kumiko has essentially absconded to retrieve the treasure buried in the snow in Fargo, North Dakota.
An executive producer on the film, it’s easy to see why director Alexander Payne would respond to this unusual and offbeat roadtrip film replete with expressionless deadpan humor and a quirky, forlorn protagonist (and truthfully, we’d take this over “Nebraska” any day of the week). Written by award-winning short filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner (David takes the solo directing credit), “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter’ is a striking film, a bizarre joy and a beautiful delight.
A strange and sad character portrait of a lonely dreamer on a quest, it is also like two films in one: the funny, but oppressive Japanese first half and the second, set in a wintry American wonderland that’s more whimsical for all its seeming atmospheric solemnity. The evocative ghostly score by the Octopus Project is another asset, their shimmering, textural sonic qualities brilliantly blurring the line between music and sound design. And it's visually striking too—don’t be surprised if DP Sean Porter ("Humpday,""Eden") becomes a Sundance award-winning cinematographer—the film is hauntingly beautiful, especially in the Minnesota-centered section, but it's a feat that was double the challenge in that he’s basically shooting two different films with two different crews and aesthetics.
Moody, melancholic & cinematic, ‘Kumiko’ and its weirdness are fastened together nicely by a terrific, mostly silent performance by Rinko Kikuchi. Unique and distinctively written, as you might expect ‘Kumiko’ does meet her share of characters along the way of her pilgrimage to Fargo (including Nobuyuki Katsube, the Zellner brothers themselves, and Shirley Venard), but thankfully she meets people rather than “characters.” Sure, some of them are eccentric in their own right, but even a fable should be believable, and the characterization is grounded in the real.
To that end, “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” is a kind of peculiar, intelligent fairy tale. While Kumiko is wearing a Red Riding Hood-esque hoodie, the connection isn’t overt, and only when her voyage leads her into the snowy dreamscape of the second half do the more fantastical elements of the film drift toward nightmare, as when point of view becomes mysteriously ambiguous when she enters a dark, frigid forest in search of her treasure. Both funny and lugubrious with respect for its characters' instability, ‘Kumiko’ suggests a darkness more evocative for never being spelled out. Is Kumiko really just mentally ill? Having watched the DVD, we know she realizes what “Fargo” is, but she still chooses to believe the movie is real. Is it a delusional sickness, is it determination, compartmentalization to cope, or, most beguilingly, is Kumiko just someone special who knows something we don’t? The Zellner brothers magical ‘Treasure Hunter’ leaves much to chew on its poignant final act and much of this frosty and bracing expressionism will be a subjective experience. But either way its ambiguity should dazzle and delight; even in its darkest reading, Kumiko goes into the night softly, like a bunny rabbit retreating from the severity of the world. [B+]