Not rated | Time: 1:45
The poster for “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” shows the film’s heroine in a Little Red Riding Hood coat, which rightly suggests that the movie has something in common with folk and fairy tales. It’s an enigmatic drama with doses of dry humor about a deeply troubled young Japanese woman who sets out on a peculiar and seemingly hopeless quest, and perseveres.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), an office worker, is deeply withdrawn and resentful, maybe bordering on an implosion. Her boss is unpleasant and her mother’s a terrible scold. She discovers an old, damaged VHS tape that’s been deliberately hidden in a cave at the local beach. At home, she’s able to make out images of a man in a snowy landscape burying a case full of cash by a fence. She doesn’t appear to realize that what she’s seeing is a story — it’s a videotape of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo,” and the man is actor Steve Buscemi.
She learns that the movie’s setting is Minnesota, and that it’s fiction, though it’s clear that on some level she never fully accepts that. To Kumiko, the buried cash is a goal and a way out of her unhappiness, so, bedraggled and short on resources, she gets on a plane for America, the land of opportunity. (The mad quest is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek,” in which three German misfits flee to Wisconsin. And there are other surreal and absurd Herzogian twists here.) When she reaches Minnesota, she fends off the cold by wrapping herself in a colorful quilt, which makes her resemble a combination of bag lady and queen.
The journey begins to take on grand overtones — at one point Kumiko likens herself to a conquistador. Still, she has a callousness that disturbs: She takes an unsavory and secretive vengeance against her boss; and before leaving Japan, she abandons her beloved pet rabbit, Bunzo, in a subway car.
The movie pokes some fun at Americans in the person of a befuddled deputy sheriff (David Zellner, who also directed the film), whose attempts to help Kumiko are genuine, if clumsy. (The character should put you in mind of Frances McDormand’s deputy in “Fargo.”) Like the audience, he has to decide if Kumiko is an unhinged woman on a daft mission, or a brave soul who has discarded convention to pursue something wondrous. He gives her the benefit of the doubt, and we should, too.
One obstacle to doing so might be a desire for clear-cut answers at every turn. But the filmmakers — the director and his brother Nathan Zellner, share the screenwriting credit — are more interested in the ironies and ambiguities, and even contradictions, of dreams and fantastic tales. They use a suitably minimalist style to keep Kumiko and her mysteries front and center.
In the title role, Kikuchi is impressive, easily handling both Kumiko’s comic and more somber sides and never allowing us to settle into a single or simple interpretation of the character. Her work, and the film as a whole, is much enhanced by an atmospheric soundtrack from the Octopus Project, which won the film a special jury award at Sundance.
(At the Tivoli.)
| Walter Addiego
San Francisco Chronicle