Sometimes a film comes along that doesn’t so much as tell a story as it does provide a character study. Kumiko is just such a film. Our titular character does not undergo any growth or change as the plot proceeds, but given that the film is not focused on a need for Kumiko to change, that works out just fine. The consequence is that the film feels a little more freeform than your average narrative piece, but the lack of convention is made up for with a humorously dark sensibility as Kumiko stumbles from one bizarre encounter to another.
The film begins in Tokyo, where Kumiko lives alone, works a dead-end job for a boss she hates, with no relationship prospects or any seeming desire to obtain any, and with a disembodied phone voice for a mother who constantly harps on Kumiko to move back in with her. Kumiko’s only solace is in a distorted old VHS tape of the film Fargo, with one scene in particular grabbing her attention: where Steve Buscemi buried the $420,000. The first half of the film is spent with Kumiko as she plans her expedition to retrieve the buried treasure, operating under the assumption that the film is true because the film’s (false) title card claimed so. And yet, it soon becomes clear that the specific monetary prize isn’t Kumiko’s true reason for seeking her riches; she wants to amount to something, and this goal is her way to surmounting a crippling depression, even if it is a delusion. Her encounters with co-workers and acquaintances are equal parts hilarious and sad, as we see people totally unequipped to deal with Kumiko’s depression attempt to orient her toward a more relatable life path.
Resisting this apparent “need” to change, Kumiko spends the latter half of the film navigating the route between Minneapolis and Fargo to retrieve the hidden treasure. Along the way, she encounters many eccentrics, from an unofficial tourism committee, to a woman bent on steering her to tourist traps, to a police officer who genuinely wants to help but has no idea how. The film is arguably at its weakest here, as Kumiko’s limited English prevents her from extensively interacting with these characters, and attention is brought away from her to focus on what are essentially glorified absurdist monologues. However, the film avoids becoming a chore by virtue of these encounters being incredibly funny, as the help these strangers offer is compounded by cultural cluelessness and an ineptitude worthy of a Coen brothers cast.
To avoid spoiling the ending, I will just say that it is bittersweet, as its tragedy is offset by an assurance that Kumiko need not change for the rest of the world. In a sense, hers is the anti-arc, a character study that emphasizes that she is not the one in need of growth, but how the world failed to grow in order to accommodate her and her depression. Marvelously insightful and wickedly funny, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is well worth your time.
This film is on a limited theatrical release run right now, so many of you may not get to see it until its release on home video in a few months. Would you like to see me review more limited releases on this blog while in theaters, or would you prefer me to wait until they become more accessible? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.