THEATRICAL REVIEW: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Produced by: Jim Burke, Andrew Banks, Cameron Lamb, Chris Ohlson, Nathan Zellner; Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (exec.)
Written by: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Edited by: Melba Jodorowsky
Cinematography by: Sean Porter,
Music by: The Octopus Project
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Bunzo
Year: 2015 (wide)
Opening with a distorted epigraph declaring the following tale to be “based on a true story,” Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is actually based more in legend than true events. The true story became muddled thanks to a misunderstanding between Bismark, ND police officers and a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi, who had come to America from Tokyo and who the police had trouble communicating with thanks to a language barrier. Konishi was seeking some kind of refuge from her overwhelming depression somewhere near Minneapolis. She had lost her job back in Tokyo and had spent some time there with her married American businessman lover, whom she possibly came to see before tragically committing suicide near Detroit Lakes, MN. The language barrier between the police and Konishi, however led to the creation of an urban legend that Konishi had instead come to seek out the money-filled briefcase Steve Buscemi’s character had buried in the Coen Brothers film Fargo, believing the briefcase was real thanks in large part to that film’s epigraph declaring the story to be based on truth (it wasn’t) – this epigraph is, in fact, the very same one that Kumiko borrows for its own story. While David and Nathan Zellner here choose to focus on the myth for their story, however, in so doing, they actually manage to do justice to Konishi’s tragic story by portraying the heartbreaking truth of her emotions that were lost in translation through the story that far more people were compelled to listen to.
Kumiko is a 29-year-old office girl at a big company. She receives confirmation through her mother and her boss that she is getting too old and is a disappointment for having not advanced far enough in her life. Her only refuge from this harsh judgment is in her apartment, where she feeds her pet rabbit, eats ramen in solitude, and then obsesses over the briefcase burial scene in the movie Fargo, believing it is her destiny to find it and no longer be a disappointment. (Her practically religious devotion to studying the film is reinforced by early scenes of her discovering the cassette in a cave, as if it were the Dead Sea Scrolls.) When she ultimately decides to move forward and travel to America, it’s a move that not many understand, and when she gets there, she finds that it’s no easier for these Midwestern Americans to understand her mission than it was back home – even the most well-intentioned people she runs into have no clue how to handle her, but she presses on, insistent that she is on the right path to fulfill a purpose that nobody is really capable of understanding in the same way she does.
Trailers for Kumiko seemed to play the film as a sort of comedy, but while the film has a few moments of humor, I found it to overall be quite a melancholy and tragic film, one that depicts an incredibly depressed woman who is desperate for validation from people who are portrayed as having varying degrees of empathy for her – anger, frustration, confusion, ignorance, indifference, etc. – but who all share the same level of confusion regarding Kumiko, try as they do to understand it. The most empathetic of these characters is the fumbling police officer who, finding the language barrier to be insurmountable, takes this Japanese woman to a local Chinese restaurant, desperately seeking out a translator. This is one of those details where film and reality intersect, as the cops who dealt with Konishi did the same, and it was also their account of their interactions with her that led to the media’s absurd assumptions about Konishi’s true purpose for being in America.
It’s kind of amazing that such a strange and ridiculous legend would grow out of Konishi’s very tragic story, but, sadly, such is often the case when it comes to language and cultural barriers. The fact that many were ready and willing to buy into this patronizing idea about how deluded Konishi was in regards to a work of fiction everyone else knew to be fiction is all the more tragic when you consider that, even if this was how the true story panned out, a very real problem was still ignored in favor of a more sensational story that was more interesting to those who didn’t even know her. The gravity of such a condition as Konishi’s is basically lost in translation for those who come from a completely different background, and assumptions are then made based on preconceived ideas and misunderstandings (possibly stemmed from the idea that Japanese people are frequently seen as being weird and eccentric?). Konishi’s severe depression and longing to be validated are characteristics that she shares with her counterpart, Kumiko, however, and by choosing to focus on this aspect, rather than regularly point out how ridiculous it is for Kumiko to have believed in her assumed destiny, the movie, at the very least, is willing to acknowledge that, even if it sounds preposterous to those who don’t share in her experience, it’s essentially real enough to her that it cannot be ignored.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a tragic, moving, but still somehow beautiful depiction (both visually and introspectively) of an all too common issue, one that many are not quite prepared to talk about or deal with. The film is quick to point this out without outright condemning those who don’t understand Kumiko (and, by extension, Konishi), thanks to some careful characterizations that don’t make these people out to be villains, but rather just ignorant of how to go about their part. It also features a magnanimous, quiet, and beautifully vulnerable performance from Rinko Kikuchi, who I had known primarily from Pacific Rim, but who I had also forgotten was once nominated for an Oscar for her work in the film Babel. I would argue that she likely earned herself the right to be nominated once again here, as well. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is undoubtedly, all-around outstanding, a perfect blend of reality and fiction, one that both honors the true story behind it while allowing for the fiction to speak the truth on behalf of the reality.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5