Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a delusory fairy tale of equal parts fanatical wit, hallucinogenic desperation, silent whimsy, and unbalanced psychosis. Lurking beneath a disquietingly malevolent innocence lies a scathing critique of US cultural imperialism. Intercepted by fragmented images of the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo, here invaded by enough static to make you question if the film really existed at all, or if it was simply a hypnotic VHS lovers’ fever dream, Kumiko uses that great barren white desert Northern (like a Western, you get the idea) as its own horizontal, false American Dream.
The Coen Brothers, the two-headed parent of that most venerable American film about the innocent and the depraved, have always been so committed to the tensions in believing in the so-called cinema of the American Dream. Their great film about the lie of heading out West, performing valiant deeds, and accruing wealth in the process traded snow in for sand, but the spirit of a great self-critical Western was coursing through its frost-stricken veins. In questioning Fargo, much as that film critiques many decades of gee-whiz Westerns to have come before it, Kumiko is trepidatiously surveying American cinema, managing not only to interrogate notions of fiction as they relate to fantasy but to honor those very fantastical, arguably delusional, impulses for their simultaneous capacity for sincerity and self-awareness. Kumiko is following Fargo down its own rabbit hole, exposing the lie to its truth much as the original film implicitly did already. Thus is the beguiling majesty of the most perplexing of modern American filmmakers; critiquing them is necessarily honoring their capacity for critique.
We only arrive in the frost-bitten wilderness of the Northern United States mid-way through the film, but the American Dream envelops us like a ring of vultures well beforehand when Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) stumbles upon an artifact of a forlorn time: a VHS copy of Fargo, the Coens’ seminal 1996 film. Distraught by her everyday life as an Office Lady with no meaningful prospects for love or advancement, her only safety proves to be her nights spent with the tape assembling and dissassembling its mythological money-ridden status as a prophet of wealth and a harbinger of destruction. Fed up with glimpsing the supposed treasure Steve Buscemi buried in the snow from a distance, she does as so many have done in the past: head West in search of her personal rags to riches story.
When she arrives, however, the forlorn, foreboding emptiness of the vast white planar hellscape that is Minnesota soon creeps around Kumiko with its own undying claustrophobia. Its ominous presence, as much a shell as a wide-open landscape of the imagination, is prefigured by the snow-like shroud of cleansing fog over her plane before it takes off. Much as the snow signals a winterly death that washes away the year’s losses and pains, the shroud cleanses the soot of a worn flight. Take another look though: the shroud is lit to appear yellow, almost malarial, and the pristine, unbruised pallidness of the snow similarly cleanses only to yield sickness yet again. Beneath this travel-stamped fairy tale, the sickness that may fester with the most puss is not external, but the internal trauma of a fractured mind left with nothing but the myths of movie magic to whisk her away to dream land. Only the dream doesn’t always want to give itself up, to return the dreamer as it expands its domain, curdling from tickling sensations of lost treasure to clawing at one’s sense of sanity. Kumiko may play with the reality of Fargo and question whether that film was fool’s gold after all, but Kumiko is the real 24 karat variety.
Filmmaker David Zellner’s anti-fable high-conceptualization is kept from cloying or over-baking by his resplendent visual craft, segmenting the frail Kikuchi off in frames to establish unease, while also engorging the images with kitschy depictions of the old red, white, and blue, colors which Kumiko frequently shields herself in throughout the film. The red coat she wears throughout the film (a dead giveaway for Don’t Look Now, a similar film about an internal delusion externalized in color and the spatial clarity, or lackthereof, in the world around its characters) is eventually complemented by a mostly blue blanket, and eventually a fully blue coat. They are markers of her only protection in the form of the American myth, the obvious third wheel to her two-colored outfit being both her pallid white skin or the ghostly snow blanket draping and swallowing all. Yet there’s no harmony here; her primary-colored attire does not communalize with the whiteness of the snow to formulate an impromptu Americana all itself. Instead, the snow reacts the same way as it does to the other longitudinal red and blue spaces in the frames: with cruel indifference.
Yet much like Fargo itself, sometimes you just have to keep telling yourself you’re telling the truth, or else your personal, and your national, fantasies of the self come crumbling down. This self-deception is true for Kumiko, and the same is heralded for her film. The color-as-storytelling motifs of Kumiko are arrows into its soul in self-conscious mythological imagery. Kumiko’s histrionic lensing is its ace in the hole, its cinematic and visual lexicon for dialecting with its own nature as myth. In Kikuchi’s brave, bracingly naked performance, we note how she captures whiffs of her own insanity, and in the film’s cinematography, we find the film itself compositing its own inner contradictions, questioning its own mythological nature even as it brashly relies on myth-making to tell a story about the dangers and perils of mythology of any genealogy.
Backed by the Lynchian hums of the ominous score by The Octopus Project and visual filmmaking that recalls Mizoguchi at his most spectral, Kumiko spends the later portions of the film moaning around the wilderness like a phantom. With the lie now given to her dreams of American treasure, it would seem that she is not the only ghost lost in this forsaken backwoods nightmare with hundreds of years of deceit lying under its belt. The final images, depending upon your point of view, invoke the clarity of Kumiko’s belief system, or its inanity. The film, it seems, has to rescind itself to the safety of its own myths too, lest it break its frail heart.