Kumiko the Treasure Hunter Goes to Fargo

March 16, 2015 Updated: April 17, 2015

Something about the Minnesota accent must get lost when translated into Japanese, at least judging from one unhappy office worker’s strange obsession. She is convinced the briefcase full of cash buried in final scenes of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” is really out there, waiting to be discovered. Her strange delusion will eventually take her to the fateful North Dakota border in the Zellner Brothers’ “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.”

It is not clear whether Kumiko’s mania has crowded out other aspects of her life or whether it has grown to fill the pre-existing void in her gloomy existence. Regardless, her work as an “office lady” (fetching coffee and dry cleaning for her boss) remains profoundly unfulfilling. That she is conspicuously older than her idiotic colleagues is a fact not lost on her, either. Her only solace comes from her pet rabbit Bunzo and watching a well-worn VHS copy of “Fargo,” constantly scribbling notes that only make sense to her.

When Kumiko finally reaches her breaking point at work, she absconds with the corporate card and books a flight to Minneapolis. This is not a well-planned trip. Kumiko carefully collects all her Fargo material, but she neglects to consider adequate winter gear.

Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko in "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter." (Sean Porter/Amplify Releasing)
Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” (Sean Porter/Amplify Releasing)

Yet, as she makes her way north, several locals will try to look out for her as best they can. The wider world is not really such a cold place in “Treasure.” Kumiko just has trouble fitting into it. That forgiving spirit is one reason why it is such an oddly moving film.

Unfortunately, “Treasure” is releasing too early in the year for short attention span Academy members, because Rinko Kikuchi seriously merits consideration for her second Oscar nomination. It is quiet work, but absolutely devastating in its power.

She vividly projects the acute sensitivity and compulsive focus that make Kumiko more closely akin to outsider artists than any routine nutter. David Zellner (the director and co-writer half of the Zellner filmmaking tandem) is also quite funny yet also rather touching, in an admirably understated way, as the sheriff’s deputy who tries to help Kumiko. Bunzo is cute too.

Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko in "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter." (Sean Porter/Amplify Releasing)
Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.” (Sean Porter/Amplify Releasing)

It is too bad nobody from “Fargo” signed on for a cameo, because there is an obvious place where the Zellners could have put it. Evidently, when you land a hit HBO series, you quit caring about independent film. Still, fans of the Coen Brothers’ film will appreciate all the references.

Whether or not it qualifies as a co-production, “Treasure” is certainly the product of extensive American and Japanese collaboration, shot entirely on location in either Tokyo or Fargo country. Representing delicately accomplished work from the Zellners and a deeply poignant lead performance, the resulting film has a sweetly sad vibe that really distinguishes from the field.

Recommended with considerable affection, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” opens this Wednesday, March 18, in New York at the IFC Center. 

‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’
Director: David Zellner
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard 
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Release date: March 18
Not rated
4.5 stars out of 5

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com