Print the legend. Was it John Ford who said that? I can’t remember. Anyway, I recall hearing the story that inspired Kumiko not long after seeing Fargo in my early teens (a film which, to this day, sits in my top ten of all time) and while tragic, it felt in keeping with the dark humour the Coens thrive off of. The story of a Japanese woman who, believing Fargo to be based on true events, flew to Minnesota and froze to death while trying to find the hidden suitcase of cash sounds like a tall tale the Coens themselves would dream up. As time went on, more details emerged and the Fargo connection became more arbitrary. This was much to the disappointment of the Zellner brothers who, upon hearing the original urban legend, had already begun work on a film adaptation of the poor girl’s plight. Wisely though, they decided to stick to the original story and the film we now see today feels like a fairy tale.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is an oddball movie but an original one. The film really works not just because of the Zellners’ conviction and belief in their version of events, but also because of Rinko Kikuchi’s gorgeously committed performance. The film sits in a dreamspace between the real and the unreal. At times you feel like you’re inside Kumiko’s head, while others you are outside it. She comes in contact with a plethora of weirdos who, somehow, feel ordinary in comparison to Kumiko herself. She is an innocent and naive young woman but a true adventurer. The film never makes her the joke, however, and her bravery and endurance is infectious. It would be easy to call Kumiko stupid, but to see her at the film’s beginning – stuck in a production line existence, expected to marry and conform as her friends have done – can we really blame her for wanting to break away into a new land with a dream of acquiring great fortune? The tragedy of Kumiko is that she chases the wrong dream, but that isn’t to say it’s a waste of time.
This is one of the most striking films I’ve seen all year. A feast for the eyes and ears, there’s an elegance to the construction which brings to mind pastel artwork as well as comic book panels, which is appropriate because Kumiko might turn out to be one of 2015’s most enduring superheroes. A lost soul desperate to be found, by immortalising her in their dreamland, the Zellner brothers have given Kumiko (who I remind you is an entirely fictional character) a fitting home. Kumiko feels slight and spread thinly at times but the world it inhabits is such a joy to get lost in that even the dead space is tolerable. Undoubtedly one of the most captivating international talents currently gracing our screens, it’s a shame Kikuchi will never be given the recognition she truly deserves for her work here. She has delivered one of the most impressive performances of the year. It’s not often we see a film like this, but thank god they come around every now and again. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but sometimes, as Kumiko proves, fiction is more memorable.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is now available on VOD services and various home video platforms.
Directed by David Zellner; written by David Zellner, Nathan Zellner; starring Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, David Zellner and Nathan Zellner; 104 minutes.