With Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Austin-based writers David and Nathan Zellner have constructed an engaging, even surprising feature around just a few jokes. Their understated approach goes a long way toward keeping these jokes fresh—no matter how many times they’re deployed, one rarely sees the punch line coming. An even more valuable asset is Rinko Kikuchi’s nuanced lead performance; on paper the title character sounds like a cartoon, yet Kikuchi (Norwegian Wood) transforms her into an enigma—heroic, childlike, pathetic, and touching.
Kumiko is a Tokyo office drone so lonely that her best friend is her pet rabbit. Both her mother and her paternalistic boss express concern about her antisocial behavior but are unable to reach her. Receding into her loneliness, Kumiko becomes obsessed with a fuzzy VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996), specifically the scene in which a cheap hood played by Steve Buscemi buries a suitcase full of ransom money in a nondescript location off the highway. This is a true story, announces that film’s opening title, and though we now know this to be a hoax, Kumiko takes it at face value. Her life’s mission, she decides, is to find that buried money. No one can shake her from her conviction, neither in Tokyo nor in Minnesota, where the film’s second half takes place.
I was impressed by how closely the Zellners have replicated a certain style of contemporary Japanese cinema, maintaining a delicate balance between fantasy, light comedy, and bittersweet drama. There’s no real equivalent in American movies, though the style has been embraced by such varied auteurs as Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Air Doll), Takashi Miike (The Bird People of China, Zebraman), and Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea and Funky Forest: The First Contact, both featuring Kikuchi). In films of this stripe, the camera often sits at a polite distance from the characters, whose behavior is similarly reserved, and the serene tone makes the ridiculous plot turns feel especially odd. This brand of comedy speaks to the pervasive gentility of Japanese culture, which can be stifling well as comforting.
In this respect Japan is similar to Minnesota, with its Scandinavian roots and obsession with good manners. The second major joke of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is that the heroine has little trouble making her way there once she arrives. In fact, she has an easier time there than back home—the people she meets are so deferential that they’re willing to assist her despite the fact that she’s clearly nuts. The Zellners mine this premise for poignant drama as well as humor. In the film’s most moving sequence, Kumiko stumbles through a small town and meets an elderly widow who invites her to spend the night; happy to have found a new friend, she immediately starts planning activities for them. Her single-mindedness mirrors Kumiko’s, reminding us that loneliness is a universal phenomenon.