First, it is loosely based on the urban legend of the 2001 death of a young Japanese woman said to have been looking for the buried money from the Coen brothers film “Fargo.” Emphasis on loosely.
The opening title card of “Fargo” is even recycled for “Kumiko,” in which it falsely claims to be a true story. Since “Kumiko” is a movie that claims a fictional event to be true, which in turn involves a movie that claims a fictional event to be true. The levels of “truthiness” in how stories are told is chiefly of concern here.
The film’s use of color and photography is phantasmagoric. Director of Photography Sean Porter even receives the second credit in the title sequence after Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the titular character.
Kumiko is a lonely outsider, portrayed as such through the highly specific camera work as much as by Kikuchi’s gripping performance. Shots are wide with the action centered and perpendicular in the frame. Kumiko and her striking red coat pop against a world beset with deep blues. Every wall, object and person in Kumiko’s world contradicts her. She is alone but impossible to miss.
The humor of the film is the dry and dark. This, too, seems like homage to the style of the Coen brothers. The Coens do not have a monopoly on black, deadpan comedy in film, but with the setting and subject matter, it is hard to imagine the film’s writing team, David and Nathan Zellner, not being a little bit inspired.
The film begins with Kumiko treasure hunting and finding a weathered VHS of “Fargo” in a hidden coastal cave somewhere near Tokyo. Where she got the map or why someone would bury a VHS of “Fargo,” or even why someone would make a map to a buried copy of a VHS of “Fargo”, is never exactly clear, but the mythic nature of the treasure easily supports Kumiko’s romantic misconception. She also buys a DVD copy of “Fargo” from a local store, however, so the exact nature of her misunderstanding is not exactly clear either.
Eventually, she travels to America to find the fictitious money, though her planning is poor and impulsive, but the movie is hoping you’re not going to be thinking about that so much. What is ultimately clear is that Kumiko’s delusion is intended to be adventurous. The movie believes in her and hopes you will too. You’re not intended to contemplate the dire reality of Kumiko’s self-destruction, but instead giggle at the kooky characters she encounters and marvel at the beautiful frames of color lavishly presented in every scene.
Essentially, Kumiko is Don Quixote, but she lacks a Sancho-style sidekick to share in her romance. Before she departs for the frozen wastes of Minnesota, she abandons her only friend, a rabbit named Bunzo, who could have easily stood in for such a role. But Kumiko’s lot in life is to be alone and to act as a martyr for misanthropes.
Certainly, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is a visually beautiful film. The Austin-based Indie group “The Octopus Project” provides an additional layer of the haunting texture with their original score. Kikuchi is a fascinating performer, and her career is one absolutely worth watching.
But my ultimate criterion for a film is whether or not it sticks with me. I need movies to make me think, or have themes or ideas to puzzle over. Essentially, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is worth seeing. I laughed and was invested while I watched.
But now as I ponder it, there isn’t much I feel will stay with me in the long term. Go see it for the color and beauty. Go for the melancholy tone and bleak humor.
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But seeing it once is probably good enough for me.
Graham Gentz is a theater and movie reviewer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo.