A quirky modern folktale from the Zellner brothers, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014) is not only a testament to the transcendental powers of the imagination, but to filmmaking itself. After mysteriously unearthing a VHS of Fargo (1996), Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) becomes increasingly obsessed with the scene in which Steve Buschemi buries a suitcase of stolen cash near Brainerd, Minnesota. Thus she embarks on an actual and metaphysical quest for buried treasure that puzzles and compels with its pervasive unreality. Although our heroine refuses to speak till quite late in the film, thanks to Kikuchi’s expressive visual cues and a seething soundscape by The Octopus Project, she doesn’t have to.
But Kumiko’s moody silence at the office, amidst her chatty, happily conformist colleagues, also signals subversion. Its her way of rejecting the banal lifestyle not only reinforced by her mother – who calls to demand why she isn’t yet married – but her patriarchal boss, who decides that at 29, Kumiko should be replaced by “younger, fresher” substitutes. Within an increasingly decontextualised digital and movie culture, Kumiko is forced to piecemeal a personal meaning (literally hand stitching a treasure map) from whatever resources most resonate. She doesn’t even watch the entirety of Fargo, but fast-forwards and replays the “treasure” scene with the possession of selective memory itself. Treading the fine line between truth and fiction, Kumiko is more than just a homage to the Cohen brothers.
It is a tangential exploration of the way films indelibly affect our lives and transmogrify our emotional innerscape. Like one of Herzog’s bizarrely holy fools, Kumiko encounters an idiosyncratic cast of characters on her quixotic journey through the New World. The Minnesota winter is tempered by their offbeat humour and well-intentioned attempts to deter her; born-again Christians welcome her at the airport, the local sheriff explains that her story is “fake, like reality TV.” In particular, an older lady provides Kumiko with temporary shelter, telling her that she doesn’t really want to go to Brainerd, but to the Mall of America. Seeking greater personal freedom abroad, Kumiko finds only further disillusionment and commercial tawdriness.
But there is a virtue to her stubborn authenticity despite an inability to find the equivalent of her treasure in reality. The voyeuristic framing of Kumiko’s quilt-laden figure persisting along icy roads and through snow – the only spot of colour in an endless white void – foreshadows the film’s equally enchanting and devastating ending. What saves Kumiko from dismissal as merely misguided or manic is her demonstrable courage, her unshakeable conviction in search of a singular uncompromising vision. She is willing to risk and sacrifice everything, including her beloved bunny Bunzo. Kumiko seeks treasure in the purest sense; hacking away at the frozen surface of life, as much as at a windswept field near Brainerd. Her fate challenges the viewer to deny that all human narratives aren’t similarly driven by a private compulsion, a re-edited reel of film played incessantly in the head, until the final fade.
Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ