Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (Amplify, NR)

kumiko 75Are you still with me? Good, because Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a hell of a fun film.

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, 2014 Sundance alum, opens with a title card that states that the film is based on a true story. But, as fans of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film Fargo will be able to tell you, it’s Fargo’s card that opens Kumiko. This is appropriate on a lot of different levels—the card on Fargo was famously a ruse on the Coens’ part, but it’s this ruse propels the narrative of Kumiko. Meanwhile, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is itself based on the story of a Japanese woman who supposedly went to Minneapolis and died looking for the briefcase full of money buried in Fargo and never retrieved in the film Fargo, except that also that “true” story has since been proven to be untrue. So, this is a fiction film that is in part claiming to be true, based on a supposedly true story that actually turned out to have been false, which in theory came about because of a fictional film that claimed to be true.

Are you still with me? Good, because Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a hell of a fun film. The film isn’t nearly as hard to understand as my opening paragraph here is, and would be completely enjoyable to those who go into it never having seen Fargo, nor knowing any of the context for this film. In effect, the film Fargo as depicted in the film needn’t exist, but we don’t need to be adding another layer to the depth of Kumiko’s origins.

Kumiko herself here is played by Rinko Kikuchi, who, since being nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for her role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, has been a go-to actress when an American film needs a Japanese actress, such as in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim or Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom. Honestly, I’ve never been terribly impressed with her work (with the possible exception of Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood), but here she’s very good. She’s deeply confused and alienated, both in her home country (where the first half of the film takes place) and later in America, where it seems like everyone around her at all times is much more clear-eyed and better put-together. Further, in most scenes Kumiko is wearing a red hoodie, and she’s generally the only red thing in the frame. In fact, very often she’s shot in her red hoodie against an all-white, snowy background. This further makes her stand out from her surroundings, and makes her red hoodie feel as much a part of her character as Clementine’s orange hoodie does in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Once Kumiko makes it to America to look for the Fargo treasure a little more hands-on, she encounters all manner of Americana (she’s traveling from Minneapolis to North Dakota, after all), and it seems like every American she encounters is well-meaning but ultimately dopey and kind of insulting. A lonely older woman offers Kumiko a copy of James Clavell’s Shogun to her upon learning she’s from Japan. A police officer takes her to a Chinese restaurant hoping that the employees of the restaurant can translate for him. She takes a ride from a deaf taxi driver. But is any of this stranger than, in Japan, when Kumiko gets into a stare-down with a not-quite-five-year old girl, set to the alarmingly-mixed sounds of a coffee shop? Or when she feeds her pet rabbit Bunzo ramen?

Along the way, Kumiko tells a security guard that she’s like the Spanish conquistadors, who learned of American treasure from the Indians, but that she learned of American treasure through the American cinema. This comparison, though presented amusingly, is surprisingly apt, as both the conquistadors and Kumiko are on a doomed path looking for El Dorado, never to find it. | Pete Timmermann

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 PM April 18 and 19. For more information, visit the Film Series’ website or call (314) 968-7487.

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