Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter begins as a horror film. A red-hooded figure stumbles innocently into a dank cave, dripping with darkness, and upon turning up a dirty rock, discovers a beat-up video tape. Slotting it into a cassette player, we realise the figure – a she – has come across nothing more than a VHS of the Coen brothers classic Fargo (meaning she won’t die within seven days upon viewing it). But she hasn’t seen Fargo; believing the tape to be some kind of secret message promising buried treasure – with its images of a briefcase stuffed with cash by one of the movie’s characters towards its end – the movie then morphs into a mystery story, and the hooded figure becomes Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. But perhaps the only mystery here is what’s going on inside her head.
Kumiko lives alone, something she is reminded of as being peculiar for a 27-year-old by her employer, and exists on the fringes of Japanese society in a self-engineered bubble of obsessive isolation. Although clearly an outsider, Kumiko possesses a drive that her more socially active peers could only dream of – and that’s what makes her such a potent leading figure for this bizarre, touching and curious film. It’s this drive that will lead her across the Pacific to the very place that Fargo is set, in icy Minnesota, with pet bunny Bunzo in tow. With sparse English (‘I go Fargo?’) to get her to where she believes, without hesitation, she will find the spot marked with an ‘X’, she nonetheless meets a few friendly strangers on the way – most memorable of them a kindly police officer, played by director David Zellner, who attempts to ease Kumiko out of her flagrant denial and back to reality. But ever she marches on, ignorant of the fact that the briefcase that Steve Buscemi buried in the snow next to a long, linked fence in the white wilderness was never there in the first place.
While the plot itself is bonkers and brilliant enough, and could easily invite many movie-within-movie or movie making commentary comparisons, the truth is that Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is beyond this kind of categorisation. It’s soulful, elegantly stylish, and features a career-making showcase for Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, and may end up being Zellner’s calling card as a director (this being only his third feature). While the movie does fall into dead ends made by its own story now and then (the movie’s ending is a particularly unsatisfying, yet admittedly justifiable portrayal of obsession taken to extreme lengths), it does flaunt a masterful grasp of differing genres and tones, its effortlessness something that is immensely enjoyable to behold.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a wonderful little oddity, and despite its occasional lulls, is at once formally inventive when it comes to structure, and beautifully restrained when it comes to performance (especially Rinko Kikuchi’s marvellous central showcase), and is near-poetic in its portrayal of culture clash. It’s not certain what type of film Kumiko is at its end, and that’s exactly its point.