In 2013, everyone fell in love with that scene-stealing cat from the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. If there is any justice in this cold cruel world—and if the movie is any indication, there isn’t—everyone is going to go similarly nuts for Bunzo, the adorable rabbit in David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. They’re both adorable and precocious, hell, they’re even the same color and serve a similar narrative function: to comfort our protagonists as their lives come undone around them, and as a symbol of all that they lose and give up in the pursuit of an unattainable dream.
In the massive, depersonalized Tokyo, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, Pacific Rim) lives alone with Bunzo. She muddles through her day at a soul-crushing job with a terrible, condescending boss, surrounded by younger, vapid coworkers who only want to get married and talk about perming their eyelashes, and nagged to death by her overbearing mother who harangues her to move back home. It’s a lonely, depressing, almost entirely silent existence, and even when Kumiko does speak, it’s just to say what others want to hear and her words are of little consequence.
Kumiko’s drab, sad exterior existence belies an inner life. She finds a degraded VHS copy of the Coen’s modern noir classic Fargo, and, believing the story to be true, as the film says, she pours over every frame, searching for the location of the lost riches Steve Buscemi buries in the Midwest snow. With her situation degrading around her, Kumiko embarks on a Quixotic quest, her red hoody cutting a Red Riding Hood-esque path through her monochrome surroundings, and heads to North Dakota and her waiting fortune, like a Spanish Conquistador.
Zellner’s film, which he co-wrote with his brother Nathan Zellner, owes a huge debt to the Coens. With the role Fargo plays in Kumiko, that’s obvious. Also loosely, emphasis on the word loosely, based on a true story, it is full of that strange, bittersweet quirk and the eccentric characters that Joel and Ethan Coen bring to their work, like a pair of evangelists who greet Kumiko at the Minnesota airport hoping help her “find what she’s looking for,” a deaf cabbie, and an old lady who wants to take her to the Mall of America. You’ll also notice a fair amount of shared DNA with the films of Alexander Payne, who serves as an executive producer. Kumiko could very easily be one of his harried, worn down, sad sack protagonists.
The haunting score by the Octopus Project underscores the melancholy, tragic state of Kumiko’s life and her delusional dream. Their soundscape reflects the shape of her mind, drowning out the exterior forces and naysaying voices like she’s wearing headphones. She drifts along with absolute certainty, and, likewise, the movie is in no hurry to get to its destination, which, from the outset, you know all to well. Knowing what is coming, that disappointment is inevitable, makes Kumiko that much more poignant and heartbreaking.
As you watch, part of you hopes Kumiko will see the error of her ways, but you know that’s not the case, and the movie has enough guts not to turn into a generic tale about growing up and leaving behind childish dreams. Instead, it piles pain and grief on top of her as she risks everything for a chance at something greater. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a stone bummer—a gorgeously photographed, haunting, and moving one, to be sure, but a bummer nonetheless—about the power of dreams, and the high costs they often levee on the dreamer. [Grade: B+]