“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is a moody comic allegory about desperation, disconnection and dreams that uses “Fargo,” the Coen brothers classic, as a touchstone to examine modern life.
The film stars the talented Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar-nominated for her stirring portrayal of a deaf teen in “Babel,” as Kumiko, a depressed cog in a corporate wheel being slowly ground down. Her story starts in Tokyo in the fall on a low and ends in a deep, snowy North Dakota winter as imagined in the Oscar-winning crime story on a high. Her quest, which keeps nudging the film forward, is to find the cash-filled briefcase that Steve Buscemi’s bad guy buried in the snow.
For the record
3:05 p.m. March 19: An earlier version of this post misspelled Frances McDormand’s first name as Francis.
The winter scenes that define the Coens’ “Fargo” keep showing up in “Kumiko” thanks to a scavenged videotape Kumiko discovers in Japan. But another pair of brothers — Texas indie filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner — are the wonderfully strange minds behind this Quixotesque tale. David directs; they co-wrote the screenplay, and they both have roles in the film.
Though having seen “Fargo” adds a few more enjoyable layers to “Kumiko,” like the new FX series also inspired by the film, all that is needed to understand and appreciate the journey is embedded by the Zellners.
The movie starts with that mysterious videocassette Kumiko finds hidden in a cave that overlooks a deserted shoreline. The intrigue, and her obsession, begins the moment she watches the badly damaged tape. Amid the scratches, the opening words of “Fargo” emerge on her TV screen, promising that what is to come is true.
Kumiko is a believer. Meticulous about examining every bit of evidence “Fargo” affords, rewinding endlessly, carefully noting in her journal the spot where the briefcase lies unclaimed along a deserted road, an orange ice scraper marking the spot. Kumiko soon becomes certain she can find it, that she is, in fact, destined to find it. Besides, hunting for buried treasure is far more enticing than facing the pressure from all sides to marry, to have children, to fit in.
The Zellners are fond of using animals as company for the loners who populate their films, like the cat that becomes a new divorcée’s saving grace in their 2008 comedy “Goliath.” In Kumiko’s case, Bunzo her pet rabbit watches the proceedings. The rabbit never judges, unlike her mother (Yumiko Hioki), a nagging voice on the phone.
By day, Kumiko is swallowed up by the mind-numbing bureaucracy of business. Each morning the standard-issue black skirt, white blouse and gray vest are pulled out of a locker at work, replacing the oversized red hoodie that is her signature look for most of the film. The effect of that red against Fargo’s white snowdrifts is particularly evocative, while Tokyo and Minnesota, the locales where the film was shot, accentuate the contrasts between Kumiko’s two states of mind.
Tokyo represents conformity. There she works as a so-called office lady, dealing with files and the tedious demands of her officious boss, Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube). It all serves to stifle her spirit to a point where she becomes barely visible, barely audible.
Though it might not sound it, watching Kumiko brood is mesmerizing. Kikuchi uses her mournful eyes to take us to dark places, though she’s equally adept at surprise and confusion, even joy when it comes along.
A series of events give Kumiko the tools she needs to make her quest a reality. And very quickly she’s headed to Fargo, or The New World, as a title card labels it.
While Kumiko is eager to escape Japan, at least there she understands how to navigate the place and the people. One of the film’s funniest scenes is her encounter with a library security guard (Ichi Kyokaku) in which money changes hands over a purloined page from a world atlas.
Minnesota, her first stop in the U.S., is bewildering. But from the moment she steps off the plane, she’s blanketed by the kindness of strangers, quite often more misguided than she is: the proselytizing tourist welcoming party led by Robert (Nathan Zellner); an old woman (Shirley Venard), soon pressing hot cocoa into her hand and explaining why Fargo is too far; the deputy (David Zellner), who buys her some all-weather gear more suited to the subfreezing weather than the red hoodie and the cheap hotel bedspread she’s wrapped around herself for warmth.
She likes the deputy the best until he tries to explain that “Fargo” is just a movie, that it isn’t real. The deputy, however, feels as if he’s plucked right out of “Fargo,” a cousin to Frances McDormand’s Minnesota police chief, sincere and straight-talking.
Kumiko won’t accept that “Fargo’s” a fiction, and soon she’s off in a blinding blizzard in search of a missing briefcase and reminding us how much better the world is when we have the whimsy and wonder of Quixotes in it.
‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles