Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)

kumiko snow

There is a lot to like about Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. The hypnotic soundtrack by The Octopus Project is a delight. At its center is a wonderful performance from Rinko Kikuchi. Best of all is the premise. The film, based on a true story, is about a Japanese woman who believes the events depicted in her VHS copy of Fargo are real and that somewhere in the Midwest lies a bunch of money, buried in the snow by a bloodied Steve Buscemi.

An engaging opening twenty minutes establishes Kumiko as a fish-out-of-water in her homeland. She steadfastly refuses the hollow aspirations pinned on her by family and society, be they marriage or a cushy job. When tasked with watching a child for a few minutes, Kumiko panics and runs away. Unfortunately, the film becomes much more obvious once she arrives as a fish-out-of-water in America. From here, the movie mostly deals in scenes of the fanatical, clearly demented young woman (we never once explore Kumiko’s very real pain) as she gets a blitz-in-a-blizzard of Minnesota nice. 

kumiko bunyan

The depictions of the kind, simple Midwestern folk in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter recall criticisms that were lobbed at the Coen Brothers after the release of Fargo, and have extended to characters in their other films. These claims, however, have always withered under scrutiny. The Coens can sure create cartoon characters but they’ve never resorted to lazy caricatures like some of the creations in Kumiko. In one scene, Kumiko is taken into a lonely woman’s house. The woman talks a mile a minute, insisting that the only thing interesting in her part of the world is the Mall of America and inquiring if Kumiko has ever read James Clavell’s Shogun. (You see, because Kumiko is Japanese.)

kumiko cop

Later scenes don’t fare much better as a kindly cop (played by director David Zellner) takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant because it’s the only place he can think of that would have someone that could interpret for Kumiko. (You see, because Kumiko is Asian and so are Chinese people.) The cop means well. I’m not so sure the movie does.

(Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is now playing at the Sundance Cinemas Seattle.)