It might not be horror by the book, but “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” definitely evokes a sense of dread and unease with its stunningly ambitious, morbidly transfixing cinematography, atmospheric, nerve-shredding score and potent hilarity rooted in heart-wrenching tragedy. Loosely based upon a snippet of Takako Konishi’s life-story, a run-of-the-mill office worker who journeyed to the United States, more specifically the city of Fargo, and ended in a field near the Detroit Lakes with her much debated suicide. “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” is a breath of brisk, unfiltered, decidedly hefty air and was well-deserving of a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Previous to the definitive discovery of Konishi’s depression and documented intent on taking her own life, miscommunication between Konishi and a Bismarck police officer, with whom she had been conversing, led to the spawning of an urban legend regarding the motivation of Konishi’s trip to America. The fable states that Konishi had travelled to Minneapolis in search of the fictitious fortune of Carl Showalter, Steve Buscemi’s character in the Coen brothers masterpiece “Fargo.” The film depicts Showalter burying a case filled with money in a field somewhere in the aforementioned city, similar to the one Konishi was found. The media fanned the flames and it wasn’t long before Konishi and the mysterious circumstances leading up to her death reached unprecedented cult-status.
With depression, loneliness, and a lack of identity driving her further from the clutches of any redemptive lifeline, Konishi’s story is one of deep sadness and struggle. A battle all too many can relate to nowadays. Yet, with such morose, Ill-fated source material, one cannot commend director and co-writer David Zellner enough for the divisive and debatably up-lifting end result, by and large. Zellner has truly created one of the most immersive experiences, both visually and viscerally, in recent memory. Mixing brief moments of such euphoria and promise with long, melancholic sequences of silence set against a wintery prairie or a thick, heavily-dusted forest. Zellner whole-heartedly comprehends the complexity of his muse and executes with the utmost respect, deriving the disheartening beauty and helplessness originating from Konishi’s turbulent final days.
That said, a strong case can be made that Zellner’s greatest accomplishment with “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” is despite the film’s rather macabre content, it eloquently and ultimately depicts the unyielding, boundless power of cinema in a positive light. Zellner’s subtlety and maliciously sweet approach to such a bizarre and definitively dark tale that is, to some degree about the negative, specifically one of the more rare downsides of cinema, despite it not having any control in the matter, excellently and truthfully portrays cinema’s ability to overcome any mishap or catastrophe and speaks volumes to the sheer strength and hallow nature of film as an art form.
Zellner and crew aren’t the only ones operating at the top of their game with “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter.” In the title role, Rinko Kikuchi is at her very best. Whether she’s uttering no more than a few words in broken English, starring off into a vicious whiteout, or bearing the insufferable hospitality of her newly-found, unwanted acquaintances, Kikuchi has full command of the screen and the audience’s heartstrings. I cannot praise Kikuchi’s performance enough, it’s difficult to describe what her fully-invested honesty and child-like innocence translates to on the screen. It’s magic, pure and simple. Easily the best performance she’s given in her career to date.
Oh and David Zellner, who pulls triple duty also grabbing a supporting role, is equal to the task and much, much more. The film wouldn’t be the same without his kind-hearted, empathetically-driven moral compass.
Mystical, incredibly transcendent, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, “Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter” is, without question, 2015s best film thus far and will be near-impossible to knock from that pedestal in the near future. Long live Bunzo!
Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter: 9 out of 10.