Fargo, great film that it is, has undoubtedly inspired many an avid film fan over the past two decades. However, it’s less likely that the film has encouraged anyone to head to Fargo in the mistaken belief that they can uncover the money buried by Steve Buscemi. Yet that’s the premise in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter as an isolated and alienated young Japanese woman packs in her life to seek out the riches she glimpsed on a scratchy VHS cassette. Despite ponderous moments, visual flair and an interesting descent into delirium help keep Kumiko’s bizarre journey afloat.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a 29 year old office lady going nowhere. Her frazzled appearance and distant manner mark her out from the animatedly childish conversations going on around her. Single at an age when she should be settling down, at least if her mother and employer’s admonishments are anything to go by, she lives alone with her rabbit Bunko and the cherished cassette she discovers in the opening frames. Believing she’s stumbled onto hidden treasure, and increasingly erratic, she steals the work credit card and leaves for Minnesota to find her fortune.
Kikuchi brings a fragile ferocity to a role that could easily have overwhelmed a lesser actor. Her impassive face and introverted demeanour hide bubbling tension that occasionally bursts free in spasms of frustrated rage. This distress only increases as she nears her goal and descends fully into a madness that’s cut her off from society. Kumiko either brushes away offers of help or is lectured by overbearing authority figures who care little for her well-being. She’s a woman cast adrift in the modern world with only a pet rabbit to welcome her home each night. Even this rabbit has to be cut free in a heart-breaking scene before she can leave for Fargo.
Director David Zellner, who also wrote the screenplay with his brother Nathan, adds in several comic fragments increasing the humour when she reaches America. From an attempt to bribe a library guard to a run in with a well-meaning yet bumbling police officer (also played by David Zellner), the film produces several amusing moments. It’s less successful when dealing with her downward spiral. Kumiko feels only half formed, shorn of motivation. Dull stretches puncture the narrative as she awaits her next meaningful interaction. The ending, oddly satisfying in a bleak way, still feels rushed, as if they ran out of material to keep spinning the yarn.
The one thing that is certainly not lacking is visual flair. A series of striking shots are littered throughout the film. Minnesota proves fertile territory with icy forests and snow swept roads an ever impressive backdrop. It’s not just nature that stands out. Watching a plane being de-iced or Bunko eating noodles is an equally remarkable experience. A touch on the long side, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter could have done with some pruning in places and fleshing out in others but the end result is weirdly effective.