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Sundance: Kumiko Hunts "Fargo"s Hidden Treasure

Sundance coverage continues with Nathaniel on the fascinating oddity "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter"

Meet Kumiko (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi from Babel), pictured above, a mopey Japanese woman in a red hoodie. This picture of her is not quite complete. While Kumiko is a mopey Japanese woman in a red hoodie there's more than just moping going on inside her, however  opaque her inner life remains. She's a quiet "Office Lady" who is miserably depressed and finds consolation only in her pet bunny Bunzo (who steals nearly every moment he's in) and her taste for treasure hunting. The movie, inspired by true events, opens with an, I assume, metaphorical search for a buried videocassette of Fargo. Once Kumiko watches it she becomes convinced that the movie is real and that Steve Buscemi's treasure awaits her in Minnesota. The red hoodie remains but she'll keep piling on other memorable attire over it on her journey from cold urban Tokyo to freezing rural Minnesota, as if the journey itself will protect her, weigh her down, or bury her. Or all three. 

The film's great strength is in its eery expressive visuals whether that's a surreal burst of shifting wet orange light (which turns out to be an airplane being de-iced I think?), odd textural juxtapositions like cloth over static tv screens, or smart visualizations (and sound mixing) which amplify Kumiko's solitude and emotional disconnect. Given the writer/director team's (Nathan and David Zellner) aptitude for mood building and imagery and the sparse dialogue, the film hardly needs to spend as much time in Japan as it does -  I confess that it took me nearly half an hour to settle into its wavelength. Kumiko doesn't always help, remaining a frustratingly impenetrable character. And yet worries about accessibility seem off point since Kumiko herself just can't connect.

The inciting image in "Fargo"

Eventually the movie curdles into something like a dark Asian companion piece to The Purple Rose of Cairo in which Kumiko continually wills the Coen Bros' classic to consume her. It's a tough sit but I found it rewarding and singular, especially in its presentational clinging to old technologies. Kumiko watches VHS, hand sews treasure maps, and despises her cel phone; she just isn't fit for the times, unable to connect in Japan or America. An ignorant but well intentioned old woman underlines this in one brilliantly succinct joke, handing the confused young woman an old paperbook of "Shogun". 

GradeB+... it really grew on me 24 hours after seeing it
Distribution: I'd say unlikely but you never know.

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Reader Comments (5)

Is this another near-wordless role for Kikuchi?

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Margaret -- yes. I mean she speaks a little but only very reluctantly

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

From the description, this sound kind of similar to Morvern Callar (and I mean that in a good way). Is that an impression you got from watching it?

January 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDylan

Dylan -- hmmm. interesting comparison point. It's not as brilliant as Morvern Callar but now you have me thinking about the two in tandem. I think Morvern's advantage is that the Samantha Morton was Oscar worthy in that. Rinko and Kumiko don't give the camera as much.

January 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I have been looking forward to this for a while; glad to hear it's good. I've been waiting since Babel for her to pick up a dramatic role she can really shine in. Map of the Sounds of Tokyo was the biggest letdown ever. *sigh*

January 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

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