KUMIKO, the protagonist of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the latest film by the American directing duo the Zellner Bros. (Kid-Thing, Goliath), emanates an intense solitude one associates with either the truly iconoclastic or the severely depressed. Played brilliantly by actress Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim), Kumiko eschews traditional markers of success. Her mother and boss constantly reproach her lack of a boyfriend or, even better, a husband, but she prefers to share noodle dinners with her pet rabbit. At her office job, Kumiko avoids associating with shiny-haired co-workers who spend breaks discussing the cost of eyelash perming.
When not seeking her bunny’s silent company, she spends time chronicling every detail of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film, Fargo, rewinding obsessively and taking detailed notes. She owns one copy on VHS; The Treasure Hunter opens with her improbable discovery of this tape buried in a cave. Fargo is one find of this self-proclaimed treasure seeker, and it quickly becomes clear that she intends her next discovery to be the cash buried by Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) in the Coen brothers’ story.
To understand The Treasure Hunter’s cinematic ambitions, it helps to know its convoluted backstory. The film contains a tangled web of meta-narrative capable of keeping the keenest postmodernist occupied. First, there is the stated truthfulness in the opening of Fargo:
THIS IS A TRUE STORY.
The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987.
At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed.
Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
Kumiko embraces the supposed veracity of this statement, devoting her life to pinpointing the precise location of Showalter’s treasure, but general audiences are less likely to accept the same premise, chalking it up instead to the Coen brothers’ use of a typical American true-crime conceit. However, while Fargo has no basis in real events, the plot of The Treasure Hunter does have a factual corollary, as chronicled in a recent Telegraph article by Alice Vincent. In 2001, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi died of exposure in Minnesota. Because she carried a crude map and demonstrated an insistent desire to travel to Fargo, local police concluded that she had been seeking the treasure buried in the Coen brothers’ film, and the media disseminated this version of events. (This story is, in itself, a fascinating comment on the way in which cinema has captured the American imagination.) A couple of years later, filmmaker Paul Berczeller uncovered the truth while making a short documentary, This Is a True Story (2003): Takako had traveled to places she’d visited with a former lover with the intent of committing suicide. Her tragedy had absolutely nothing to do with Fargo.
The Treasure Hunter is therefore a fictional film inspired by a true event, which was, in turn, misinterpreted as a true belief in an event in a fictional film. And, like Russian nesting dolls, the plot of the Zellner Bros.’ film centers on a protagonist propelled by a belief in the truth of a fictional film — the only untruth here with a truthful corollary, although still one based in misunderstanding. In this case one needs neither trompe-l'oeils nor emotional rationales to reason that cinema might blur life; it is interwoven in every fiber of The Treasure Hunter’s origins. As a comment on postmodern narrative, the film is neither particularly original nor interesting. It merely proves yet again that a story can endlessly reflect upon its status as narrative. But unlike, for example, an Errol Morris documentary in which illusionary reality is the meat of the subject, what is most remarkable about The Treasure Hunter is that viewers need not know any of its backstory to appreciate the film. The Zellner Bros., perhaps inadvertently, place outsized meta-narrative in competition with pathos. Pathos wins, hands down.
The film suggests that Kumiko suffers from schizoid delusions; believing that Fargo’s title sequence represents reality, and structuring one’s life around a movie plot, point unmistakably to psychosis. And yet, the society in which Kumiko finds herself seems equally deranged — individuality has disappeared and oppressive, cookie-cutter capitalism reigns. Like psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who presented psychosis as a legitimate expression of an individual’s existence, the Zellner Bros. depict Kumiko’s madness as existentially understandable. Consequently, audiences cannot help but identify with her rebellions, from her unkempt hair to her life lived primarily in the imagination. Within the film, figures of authority are equally prey to Kumiko’s charms. A library guard rips out a page in an old book of maps after Kumiko insists she must have it to fulfill her destiny. A North Dakotan sheriff (played by David Zellner) devotes days to helping her find what he knows to be a nonexistent destination. There is a winsome vulnerability to her misguided passion, an alluring antidote to the cynical and the mundane.
Kumiko speaks very little. The potency of this character’s charm, individuality, and madness comes from Kikuchi’s impressively understated performance and from the cinematography of Sean Porter, who constantly accentuates Kumiko’s solitude. Close-ups of her disheveled hair create meaningful contrast with the slick environment of her Tokyo workplace. In North Dakota, the bright colors of her makeshift motel-comforter coat stand out against the drab sky and white snow. And Porter adds a degree of discomfort to every interaction; his protagonist never looks at home in the frame, always the outsider.
Kumiko is a character worthy of comparison to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, another being defined solely by an unreachable goal. For all of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’s concerns with the blurring of cinema and life, what sticks is its portrait of singular faith. The film affirms cinema as a natural home for characters whose outsized obsessions reflect each of our smaller rebellions against the oppressions of conformity.