Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sundance ’14: Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

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, which screens today at the Sundance Film Festival.

It is not clear whether Kumiko’s obsession 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 bimbo 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 neglects to consider adequate winter gear. 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.

With the right distributor behind her, Rinko Kikuchi might stand a chance of landing her second Oscar nomination for Kumiko. It is a quiet performance, 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 routine nutters. 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.

It is too bad nobody from Fargo signed on for a cameo, because there is an obvious place where the Fellners could have put them. 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. Ironically, Alexander Payne recently signed on as an executive producer, just before he was nominated for Nebraska and the Coens were snubbed for Llewyn Davis (none of which he could control).

Whether or not it qualifies as a “co-production,” Treasure certainly represent extensive American and Japanese collaboration, shot entirely on location in either Tokyo or Fargo country. Surprisingly accomplished work from the Zellners, it has sweetly sad vibe that really distinguishes from the rest of the field. Recommended with considerable affection, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter screens again this morning (1/25) in Park City, as the 2014 Sundance Film Festival comes to a close.