“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is a supple combination of Little Red Riding Hood adventure, ironic road film and cross-cultural confusion.
This droll American independent, shot in Tokyo and Minneapolis’ western suburbs, takes narrative somersaults worth an Olympic medal for storytelling gymnastics, yet ties everything together nicely. It’s one of those entertaining hybrid movies that give you a small, wonderful world and leave you feeling regretful to leave.
Japanese star Rinko Kikuchi, whose entrancing, expressive eyes helped make “Pacific Rim” and “Babel” international successes, plays Kumiko, a downtrodden Tokyo secretary. At 29, she’s reaching the Japanese office lady’s end of the road. A sad sack with poorly frizzed hair and slim social skills (her closest relationship is with her adorable domestic bunny Bunzo), she barely survives calls from her pushy ma, let alone talk with her young, slick co-workers.
Kumiko becomes obsessed with Joel and Ethan Coen’s lethal comedy “Fargo,” repeatedly watching her grainy, age-distorted VHS copy. She is fixated by the film’s misleading disclaimer, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY,” the very image and claim that open this movie. Time and again she speeds to the scene of kidnapper Steve Buscemi burying a valise full of ransom money by a snow-covered Minnesota roadside. Soon Kumiko is planning a lunatic mission to find that hidden fortune in the frozen Midwest.
Her fanciful imagination, a wish to escape from her cramped, messy apartment, and a company credit card stolen from her officious boss carry her to wintry Minnesota. Travel setbacks and lodging holdups interfere with her progress toward the promised land. Still, every time a native offers help to the stranger marching down the icy highway, she announces, “I go Fargo.” Rescue her from freezing, tell her that the Mall of America would be more fun and offer to take her there after a night’s rest at your house, and she’ll march off again the moment you’re asleep.
Director David Zellner co-wrote the script with his brother Nathan, and both play fine minor roles. They were inspired by the urban legend that developed when a Tokyo woman was found frozen dead in Detroit Lakes in 2001. With its equal doses of hopelessness and optimism, this is a movie that at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending, but won’t accept the box-office poison of a fatalistic finale.
The quixotic quest film, produced by Alexander Payne, echoes his melancholy “Nebraska,” where Bruce Dern played a stubborn old coot determined to trek 900 miles for a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Kikuchi makes an equally good star turn in this charming character piece, even when she risks being goofy, myopic, awkward and bratty. Like Payne, the Zellners filmed in full widescreen. Director of photography Sean Porter composes shots of shabby lodging houses, small towns and wilderness environments both utterly beautiful and suffused with fatality. He captures Kikuchi’s deadpan silent humor wonderfully; a Steadicam following her from behind as she hikes out from her plane into the Minneapolis airport is a wonderful minute of side-to-side Chaplinesque rambling.
The director plays a Marge Gunderson-like deputy sheriff who takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant in hopes that the area’s only Asians can communicate with her. After straight-faced comic encounters with kind, bland locals who are too polite to tell her she’s nuts, Kumiko presses on. Alone. On foot. Kumiko is part a stranger in a strange land, part completely in her own world. Everyone tries to help her in a way that’s different from what she wants. As she sees it, she’s a modern-day Spanish conquistador. But without the common sense to invade somewhere warm.