David Zellner’s new film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), conceived and written with his brother Nathan, is an exquisitely deadpan drama-black comedy. Beginning in Japan, it eventually treks to an American town that the film literate amongst audience members will be all too familiar with. This is the strange odyssey of a young woman, Kumiko (Rinko Kukuchi). Isolated, outcast, and peculiar, she works a menial, pointless office job, beyond which she’s inclined to become immersed in strange quests. Viewing herself as like a Spanish conquistador she stumbles upon a barely functioning copy of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece Fargo (1996) on a mangled VHS tape. Little footage from the film is discernible, though she’s drawn to a key scene in which Steve Buscemi’s criminal buries a suitcase full of cash in the snow beside an anonymous, changeless stretch of highway.
Replaying this footage over and over again, Kumiko constructs a meticulous but spurious map and becomes determined to travel to Fargo and uncover the treasure for herself. Appropriating her boss’s credit card she heads to the States and sets out on her journey. Naturally she will encounter some oddball characters along the way, including a helpful police officer played by the director himself. Most of the people she meets, surprisingly, are sympathetic to her cause and attempt to shed light on a reality that Kumiko struggles to come to terms with.
With its oddball sensibilities, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter remains true to the strange worldview of Kumiko. It’s this vision that informs the film’s aesthetic and our perspective, consequently, is forever filtered through her eyes. The marvellous Kukuchi gives an astonishing performance; so much hangs on her and even with limited dialogue she fills Kumiko’s life with strange, intimate details that reflect an intriguingly internalised reaction to the world. There’s a real chance her remoteness will be alienating to some but the purity of her pursuit combined with a sweet and restless naivety and intimately expressive eyes mean that we fall in step with her whims – however misguided they seem.
Though the film tends to ebb and flow through the course of a very deliberately paced narrative, the often wordless reactions of Kumiko provide subtle, rich details of a life that remains resolutely self-contained. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter will not be to all tastes but it’s full of idiosyncratic details, including an often brazen, ominous use of music by The Octopus Project which occasionally rises to cacophonous heights as if the plot is nearing a horror movie detour. Though it doesn’t deliver the payoff it seems to be hinting at, the film never loses its way until the very end when, presumably struggling for a strong metaphorical summation of Kumiko’s quest, it weakly fades out. Minor quibbles aside, this is a compelling, distinctive piece of cinema with a startling central performance and highly recommended viewing.