Out in the cold: Rinko Kikuchi is searching for Fargo money in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Out in the cold: Rinko Kikuchi is searching for Fargo money in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.
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Out in the cold: Rinko Kikuchi is searching for Fargo money in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

Out in the cold: Rinko Kikuchi is searching for Fargo money in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

Out in the cold: Rinko Kikuchi is searching for Fargo money in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

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★★½

Nobody can quite figure out Kumiko, a Tokyo office worker in her late 20s with a duckling’s waddle, a downcast gaze, and an air of sullen preoccupation. Her obnoxious boss (Nobuyuki Katsube reprimands her for her failure to fit in with the other girls, while her overbearing mother (Yumiko Hioki​) can’t understand why she doesn’t seem interested in finding a husband.

The truth is that Kumiko’s mind is on other things. She’s obsessed with the 1996 comedy-thriller Fargo, which bills itself as a true story. Watching her VHS tape over and over, she concludes that the suitcase of cash at the centre of the plot must still be buried in the wilds of Minnesota, where the film is set. Of course, the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed Fargo, were only having fun. But for Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi​), to accept this would be blasphemy. When her guard comes down, she describes herself as a “conquistador”, irresistibly drawn to the promise of the New World.

Taking advantage of the company credit card, Kumiko flies off to find her destiny in Minnesota, where she encounters a line-up of locals with mainly good intentions, including a lonely widow (Shirley Venard) and an anxious sheriff played by David Zellner, the Texan director and co-writer of this shaggy-dog tale. Though he acts rather well, Zellner can’t resist cuing us to laugh at these clueless hicks – the widow babbling on about the James Clavell bestseller Shogun, the sheriff taking Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant on the assumption that one Asian culture is much like another.

Under the circumstances, Kumiko’s indifference to her hosts registers as perverse integrity. But this slow, self-consciously quirky film has little to offer beyond the mild comedy of these uncomprehending encounters – the kind of thing Jim Jarmusch​ has been doing since the 1980s – and a feeling of anomie typified by artfully composed shots of Kumiko looking out the window at night or tramping in the distance through the snow.

Basically an interesting failure, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter raises a couple of difficult issues. First, what responsibility do storytellers have to real-life material? Unlike Fargo, this film does have a basis in truth: Kumiko is modelled on an actual Japanese office worker whose journey to Minnesota led to tragedy. But Zellner has chosen to ignore the grim facts of the case in favour of dramatising a wacky myth that gained some currency at the time.

Second, at what point does culture-clash comedy shade into racism? To some degree the film fends off this charge by showing us that Kumiko is as out of place in Japan as she is in the US, yet the conception of her as an adorable kook all too closely fits stereotypes of the Japanese as ditzy yet inscrutable. If the character were American, would the Zellners be as tempted to find comedy in behaviour that clearly indicates mental illness? Until we get a film where Zooey Deschanel​ goes searching for the original village from The Seven Samurai, I suppose the question will remain open.

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