‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ strikes gold thanks to Rinko Kikuchi

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a very strange movie, but in different ways than you may think.

I don’t know if I expected it to be a little more fun, a little quirkier based on the premise, which is based roughly on a true story. Maybe if I’d actually looked into the true story and discovered it’s tragic ending, I would have been a little more ready for a pretty bleak film with a title character who is difficult to like.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this film to people frustrated by protagonists who are at fault for their own downfall, who constantly self-sabotage and turn from any situation that might be a step forward for them. Kumiko, as a character, is a bit frustrating, and we occasionally become frustrated with her even as we understand that she sees the world very differently than “normal” people. It’s difficult to not also feel sad for her even as she rebukes everyone and everything.

Kumiko is 29 years old, languishing in an entry-level job as an assistant to middle-aged businessmen and surrounded by younger, prettier, bubblier coworkers. Her mother and her boss wonder why she isn’t married yet, she literally runs away from attempts at friendships, and she has no apparent hobbies–other than treasure hunting.

When Kumiko follows a map to find a battered VHS in a cave by the sea (where is this map even from?), she takes it home to discover that the tape depicts a man digging in the snow to bury a box containing millions of dollars. What she doesn’t understand is that the tape is actually just the movie Fargo, and she’s watching the scene where Steve Buscemi’s character buries the ransom money. As she begins to fail at her job, alienate family and friends, and ultimately give up on her life in Tokyo, Kumiko decides to head to North Dakota and find this amazing treasure.

When Kumiko gets to Fargo, the film occasionally works in some deadpan humour and jokes about midwestern sensibility, but they mostly fall flat. As someone who was riveted by watching Kumiko try and fail to connect to reality in Tokyo, I was less enamoured by her actual treasure hunt. It felt like a distraction, as a lot of the North Dakota scenes feel like a distraction despite their beauty (the camera really captures the stark harshness of winter, and Kumiko’s red cardigan against the blinding white of snow is striking). North Dakota is not good to Kumiko, and I’m not sure what all these bumbling, well-meaning North Dakotans are supposed to be doing here. Are they comic relief, more sympathetic ears Kumiko rebukes, or symbols of a harsh landscape Kumiko is entirely unprepared for? All three? The film never really settles on one.

This film is about Kumiko as a person, how alien she is, how insistent that her way is always the right way despite the fact that she’s traveled to the other side of the world to find a treasure from a fictitious movie. There are no other protagonists, so, again, if a character like Kumiko isn’t one you gravitate towards, I don’t know how you’ll feel about staying with her the whole film. On my part, I tend to find these sorts of characters fascinating. I like difficult-to-like, even bad people in my fiction.

I recognize the film has flaws–it gets a bit too twee, a bit too Wes Anderson-y, at times. Sometimes the script tries too hard to turn Kumiko into a loveable weirdo when Rinko Kikuchi is committed to playing her as a stubborn, antisocial, tragic character whose behaviour occasionally hints at clinically antisocial. This is the character who is the most fascinating to watch, as we’ve seen all those others before. Kikuchi’s performance is wonderful and riveting, and if the directors hadn’t landed someone so talented, the entire film would’ve failed.

Expect Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter to be a bit of a bumpy ride with kinks that could have been ironed out, but with a fantastically original protagonist, who is endearing despite the viewer’s constant desire to tell her to give up and go home.

A (for Kikuchi’s performance)

B- (for the movie)

Check out Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto starting today. 

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