Many delightful, haunting things happen in David and Nathan Zellner’s “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” which screens at SXSW 2014. One is that a duo of filmmaking brothers -- moving steadily toward the top of their game after a decade of turning out weird, unique short and feature films -- quote another duo of filmmaking brothers, who have been at the top of the their game for decades.
In “Kumiko,” the young woman of the title (played with heartbreaking resilience by Rinko Kikuchi) lives in Japan, a depressed outsider who doesn’t fit in at her office job, where a domineering boss treats her as his servant and her co-workers giggle about their latest eye-lash perms. Kumiko has no boyfriend or partner, seemingly no friends (except her chubby pet rabbit), and a strained relationship with her mother, who we only hear nagging her over the phone. But Kumiko has an abundant interior life: She feverishly watches and rewatches the film “Fargo” (hello, Coens!), taking notes and measurements on where exactly in the barren, snow-covered Minnesota wilderness Steve Buscemi’s character buries a suitcase filled with loot.
This brings Kumiko from the vertical, neon-lit Japan to the flat, flat, flat white-out of rural Minnesota, a geographical switch the Zellners embrace with striking camera work and a keen sense of place. The film, shot by DP Sean Porter on the Alexa, is the best-looking of the many I saw while at Sundance, and the most formally controlled. Festivals like SXSW and Sundance, where "Kumiko" premiered, are the lands of breakouts and buzzy first-timers, but there’s nothing like watching a film made by directors with years of experience. (For that matter, "Kumiko" was years in the making, too -- it seems to have been in the works since at least 2007).
When Kumiko reaches Minnesota, it’s as if she’s setting foot on an alien land, where evangelist tour guides corner her at the airport, a benevolent old woman attempts to comfort her by lending her a copy of “Shogun,” and a sweet highway patrolman, who realizes immediately the tragedy in Kumiko’s search for movie treasure, nonetheless attempts to help her quest. (David and Nathan Zellner play a couple of the aforementioned characters; both are good actors.)
I won’t give away all that happens to Kumiko in Minnesota -- it’s wondrous and terrifying in equal measure -- but the story proves to be one not just of eccentricity but of passion. Sometimes a vivid interior life is worth risking everything for. Kumiko’s treasure only exists in the movies -- but then, Kumiko also exists in the movies, so she may just be on to something.
"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" screens at SXSW on March 11 and 15. It is currently seeking stateside distribution.