Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a solitary office worker, under pressure from her mother to be married, and her boss to make room for younger workers, finds a VHS copy of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo in a sea cave. Believing the claim in the opening titles that Fargo is a true story, Kumiko becomes obsessed with the money buried at the side of a road by Steve Buschemi’s character, and makes her way to the American Midwest to find her fortune.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is not so much based on a true story, but based on an urban legend that grew up around the death of a young Japanese woman found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Due to some fancy story telling, fiction merged with fact, until many people believed that Japanese office worker Takako Konishi had died searching for a fortune, and this is the basis of David Zellner’s film.
The success of Kumiko, The Treaure Hunter relies on lead actress Rinko Kikuchi, who treads a careful line in her portrayal of Kumiko. Kikuchi makes her character a solitary one, who seems to choose the company of her pet rabbit over spending time with people. This solitude, however, never feels lonely, and in fact Kumiko often pushes the humans in her life away. As the character discovers Fargo, however, a quiet determination steals over her and, no matter how many times she is told that the film is fiction, she tenaciously holds onto her dream. The rest of the cast is made up of writers David and Nathan Zellner as a police officer and a tour guide, respectively, Shirley Vengard and Brad Pranther.
The story, written by the brothers Zellner, is an eccentric tale that takes more than a couple of cues from the dark absurdity of Fargo itself. The notion of whether Kumiko is mentally ill, naïve or has genuinely never seen a movie before is not one that the filmmakers address, but it is certainly one that crosses the audiences’ minds. The Zellners never truly question Kumiko’s motives, instead leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions about the character, and the film’s ending.
As director, David Zellner allows Kumiko’s solitary world to take over the screen, and for this to be reflected in the landscape of the American Midwest. Zellner allows Kikuchi to carry the film, and for the people around her to be kind, but perplexed.
In all, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter relies on audiences accepting the twisted fairytale on screen, and is a loving homage to an urban legend, to one of the Coen Brothers’ greatest films, and to the ideas of innocence and determination.