Upon discovering a hidden copy of Fargo on VHS, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) becomes convinced that the large case of money in the film is in fact real. The VHS contains a treasure map and, with limited preparation, Kumiko decides to travel from Tokyo to Minnesota on a quest to find the fortune.

 

2.5

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: A log line is the term the film industry uses to describe a film plot in a simple sentence in order to market it to producers and funding bodies. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter demonstrates the problem when the selling device is extended beyond its capabilities. Once you’ve been told that it is the “true” story of a Japanese woman who becomes obsessed with the money buried and never exhumed in the Coen Brothers film Fargo, what else is there?

The film’s dilemma is summed up when office worker Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, best known as the mute schoolgirl in Babel) decides to free her pet rabbit. At a Tokyo park, “Bunzo” shows no inclination to embrace freedom. The rabbit doesn’t go anywhere. And while the story of this film spans from Japan’s major metropolis to the American midwest, metaphorically speaking this movie doesn’t really go anywhere either.

Yes, David Zellner’s film (co-scripted with his brother Nathan Zellner) does capture the dull slog of Tokyo office work. The Japanese have an expression: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” And Kumiko, receives more hammering than most. She lives alone (with Bunzo), receives the occasional nagging phone call from her mother about not being married, and she’s not as neat or as cheerful as her office colleagues. Not that her boss or her co-workers show any particular disdain for Kumiko, but apparently her environment has driven her past the edge of emotional disturbance. Somehow (we’re given a moody piece of magic realism as an evocative, though blithe, explanation) the Fargo movie comes in to Kumiko’s life. This film, with its undiscovered money, is where freedom lies for Kumiko. The Zellners seem clear America doesn’t beckon Kumiko; it's the money. If Fargo had been set in Tanzania, Kumiko could have just easily travelled there.

For over an hour, the film watches as Kumiko bumps up against the daily drudgery of Tokyo life. Out of synch with her surroundings, she makes a dour, pathetic heroine that doesn’t exactly invite sympathy. But when opportunity comes, Kumiko grabs it with both hands and goes to Minnesota. The Coen Brothers might provide the point of departure, but the true touchstone here is Jim Jarmusch and the film plods along with stranger in a strange land tropes.

Some moments shine. A nice touch is the old lady (Shirley Venard) who gives Kumiko a copy of James Clavell’s Shogun, revealing she knows as little of Japan as Kumiko knows of America. The film’s most powerful moment comes when Kumiko breaks down in front of a kindly Minnesota policeman played by the director. When I saw this film, the scene prompted loud laughter. It’s actually a powerfully accurate representation of grief as expressed by Japanese women. Full credit to the director for leaving it in as it shows more understanding about Japanese womanhood than the rest of the film does. (Note, though, that Kikuchi is also one of the executive producers. She may have exerted some influence.)

There’s little doubt that Kikuchi has put a lot of herself into the role of Kumiko, but the film doesn’t probe very deep. The film upholds the annoying tradition of festival cinema of being an extended anecdote rather than a sustained story.

Significantly, this film is based on a true story – a point perhaps not clearly communicated as Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter uses a fuzzy video tape’s depiction of the disclaimer on the leader of Fargo to communicate its origins. An odd death with an apparent movie connection made such an item fly across the wire services in 2001 and landed it in on page 27 of the world’s newspapers. (Locally, it appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald’s Stay in Touch column if I recall correctly.) No doubt, the Zellners did some research and discovered the item – as reported – was not entirely true. (The allegedly true events of Fargo have even less basis in truth, by the way.) The scene where the nice cop takes the Japanese woman to a Chinese restaurant in the forlorn hope of finding an interpreter did happen, and provides an amusing damnation of rural ignorance.

On the whole, however, the Fargo hook was a furphy. And it wouldn’t matter, but by deciding to go the John Ford route and “print the legend”, the Zellner film lacks depth precisely because it remains a riff on a story with an aura bigger than its actual content. The Zellners have filled it their log line as best they can, but Kumiko remains a character without a true purpose, just a cipher to fulfil a wacky premise. Though it’s a cheat, the film’s finale is oddly heart-warming. The truth is grimmer, but veiled here behind a coy curtain of knowing fantasy. The Zellners aren’t trying to fool anyone, but without its sugar-coated coda, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter would have been completely nihilistic. Accordingly, its deceptive finale becomes something for which to be grateful.