We all use movies as a temporary escape from our own realities. But what if a movie offered an actual escape — the chance to transform a trapped existence into an open frontier of endless possibilities? That's the premise of the offbeat melancholic study Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, written and directed by brothers David and Nathan Zellner.
Depressed 29-year-old Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) lives in a cluttered and cramped Tokyo apartment, with only her rabbit Bunzo for company. She performs poorly at her job as an "office lady," and is socially awkward.
But, buried at the beach, she discovers a VHS copy of the 1996 Coen brothers film Fargo. Through repeated playbacks, Kumiko fixates on the money that Steve Buscemi's character buries in the snow. Believing that it is still there, waiting to be unearthed, she makes a treasure map (actually an exquisite piece of folk-art embroidery) and sets out for North Dakota to find it.
"I am like a Spanish conquistador," she tells a befuddled security guard at the Tokyo library. "Recently, I've learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas." Dressed in a bright-red, oversized hoodie, Kumiko recalls the famous fairy tale, with its own naïve traveler who finds unexpected danger.
- Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is Fargo-bound.
The film's second half charts Kumiko's journey through wintry Minnesota, where she is unprepared for the harsh weather (eventually resorting to an improvised poncho made from a motel bedspread) and the open kindness of small-town Midwesterners.
There are glimmers of fish-out-of-water humor, but the urgency of Kumiko's quixotic quest underscores the sadness and desperation fueling her delusion. Each step in the snow is step away from her miserable life in Japan, but just as likely another step closer to tragedy, however exhilarating the exploration. The endlessly open spaces of Minnesota — where the snow-covered fields blend seamlessly into the pale grey sky — offer Kumiko only the riches of freedom and possibility, but even this — like the buried cash — is an illusion.
The story draws inspiration from an urban legend that sprung up in 2001 after a young Japanese woman was mysteriously found frozen to death in rural Minnesota. But mostly this slender sad tale is fully realized by Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel). It's a role with little dialogue, yet Kikuchi makes Kumiko's depression and repressed anger palpable, her quiet madness relatable and even thrilling. There is no "Fargo" — films are fake, the kindly Minnesota sheriff tells her — but Kumiko recognizes an escape, even if it's hiding in the dreamscape of a movie.