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Thursday, March 19, 2015


2014, 105 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

This review was originally published on July 13, 2014 after a screening at the Rooftop Films Series.

I'm having trouble with how to start this review because I want to introduce this movie in a proper manner.  Why?  Because I love it more than almost any movie I've seen all year.  The Zellner Bros.' Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a miracle.  Widely loved since its Sundance premiere, the film was executive produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, written by David and Nathan Zellner, and directed by David Zellner.  It's a completely original work that's unlike anything else I've seen.  There is usually a movie that comes along every once in a while that balance tones and emotions brilliantly - this is one of those movies.

Loosely based on an urban legend (which itself was loosely based on fact) Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of Kumiko (Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi), a lonely Japanese woman who is obsessed with finding the money hidden in the Coen Brothers' film, Fargo.  She doesn't realize that Fargo, despite what the opening says, is not a true story, so she goes to Minnesota to find the "treasure".

The two things that make Kumiko the masterful piece of filmmaking that it is are Kikuchi's performance and the screenplay.  Kikuchi gives another empathetic and quiet performance that melted my heart.  Kumiko has very little life and no friends.  She doesn't say much and she eats ramen noodles for dinner (sometimes sharing with Bunzo, her rabbit).  The power of Kikuchi's performance comes all from her face.  She looks down with her sad eyes as she continuously is beaten down by others.  However, when she is given a purpose in life (to find the "treasure"), she still looks sad, but has a twinkle in her eye.  To watch Kikuchi as Kumiko is to watch an actress completely inhabit her character.  David Zellner also gives a heartfelt performance as a cop who helps Kumiko in Minnesota.

David and Nathan Zellner's screenplay could've easily been judgmental, but it isn't and never stoops to that low level.  The Zellners allow us to observe and love Kumiko.  Her quest may be quixotic, but there is something beautiful about watching someone follow their dreams.  When I saw the film for the first time, my friend pointed out that the Zellners make America seem odd and foreign, just as it seems for Kumiko.  This point is very accurate and after viewing Kumiko for a second time, it's more evident than ever.  Because Kumiko doesn't speak any English and is completely unfamiliar with American customs, everything seems very odd, from the tourist information people at the airport to the kindness of the Minnesotans.  America has never felt so foreign.

The Zellner Bros. beautifully capture Midwestern culture and poke fun at Minnesotans without being insulting.  With this film as a whole, they create a world that's familiar, yet not.  They show us everything from Kumiko's perspective, which makes the world seem unfamiliar and strange.  The Octopus Project's mysterious score furthers this feeling and Sean Porter's gorgeous cinematography gives the film some visual elegance.

At the Q&A after the screening, the Zellners discussed making the film and how it took 10 years for it to finally be shot.  They had met Kikuchi back in 2008 and discussed the role with her through a translator.  By the time they started shooting the film, Kikuchi was fluent in English.  During the film, there is a scene in which Kumiko goes into the Japanese subway.  Films are not allowed to shoot in the subway, so that scene had to be shot guerrilla-style.  Right as the scene had finished shooting, the police came in, causing the camera crew to run out.

The Q&A was full of interesting little stories like these.  The weather was perfect and the Industry City Rooftop and Courtyard offered a stunning view of Manhattan.

Overall, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a powerful, funny, sad, yet hopeful film about a woman trying to chase an impossible dream.  Amplify just picked it up for U.S. distribution, so audiences everywhere will be able to take Kumiko's journey.  While viewers don't necessarily need to watch Fargo before viewing, it won't hurt.  I love this movie and would happily see it for a third time.  It simply has everything that I want from a film and then some.  I felt many emotions watching Kumiko, often opposite ones at the same time, and that made me appreciate the movie even more.  Films like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter are why I go to the movies.


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