Our desire that life should be more like it is in the movies beats at the heart of “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” a wonderfully strange and beguiling adventure story comprised of buried treasure, hand crafts, and a possibly unhealthy obsession with the Coen brothers. An ever-so-slight step closer to the mainstream by another sibling filmmaking team, indie veterans David and Nathan Zellner, made without compromising one iota of their fiercely original vision, this alternately spirited and sad adult fairy tale will surely baffle as many viewers as it enchants, but should ride appreciative reviews and a knockout central performance by Rinko Kikuchi to much fest and arthouse exposure.
With its Midwestern setting, its quixotic, fortune-seeking protagonist and the presence of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor as executive producers, “Kumiko” will inevitably draw some comparisons to Payne’s own recent “Nebraska,” though in actuality the Zellners have been trying to make this movie for the better part of a decade, inspired by the urban legend surrounding Takako Konishi, a young Japanese woman found dead in a snowy field in northern Minnesota in 2001. But while Minnesota is where we eventually end up, the movie opens a world away in Tokyo, where the shy, soft-spoken Kumiko (Kikuchi) works as on “office lady” (a glorified secretary) amid constant taunts from her mother about still being unmarried and childless at age 29.
In this, Kumiko evokes some of the characters the great Setsuko Hara played for Ozu, except where Hara’s characters were always joyful, self-assured spinsters, Kumiko seems lost in a melancholy haze, apart from everyone — apart, even, from herself. It’s a marvelous role for Kikuchi, who has the intensity of the great silent film stars, and who’s fascinating to watch even when Kumiko is doing nothing more than sitting solemnly by the window of her apartment eating ramen noodles as a rain begins to fall. At every turn, we can sense what’s going on behind Kumiko’s doleful, downcast eyes; Kikuchi pulls us deeply into her world.
In a scene that feels like a dream but is never explicitly identified as such, Kumiko walks along a rocky shoreline with a treasure map in hand, X marking the spot where … an unmarked VHS tape can be found buried in the sand. That tape, which follows Kumiko back into the ostensibly real world, contains a badly degraded copy of “Fargo,” complete with its ersatz epigram stating that the Coens’ film was based on a true story (it wasn’t). And the more Kumiko watches and rewatches the movie (eventually upgrading to a DVD), the more she becomes convinced that the story unfolding before her is real, particularly the scene in which Steve Buscemi’s hapless kidnapper buries a suitcase filled with cash in the North Dakota snow. She even creates a hand-sewn map indicating exactly where she believes the suitcase to be located — and with that, a torn page from a library atlas, and the boss’ credit card in hand, Kumiko pulls a Marion Crane and jets off for the Americas.
Tokyo-Fargo flight service not being what it used to, she gets as far as Minneapolis, at which point it’s easy to see how “Kumiko” might have gone cutesy and soft and all too Amerindie-ish, filled with cheap culture-clash gags. To be sure, Kumiko does encounter her share of plainspoken Midwestern hospitality as she treks on toward North Dakota, from a kindly old widow (the terrific Shirley Venard) who takes her in for the night and offers her a paperback of James Clavell’s “Shogun” (“a book about Japan”), to the well-meaning sheriff (David Zellner) who delivers Kumiko to a local Chinese restaurant in search of a translator. But when the Zellners deploy such gags, they do it with a humanist touch that allows everyone to maintain an elemental dignity. The situations in a Zellner movie may approach the absurd (the divorced, demoted man seeking the murderer of his cat in “Goliath”; the motherless tomboy who encounters a mysterious voice emanating from a hole in the ground in the recent “Kid-Thing”), but the people never do.
In the real case of Konishi (which previously inspired the 2003 Channel 4 documentary “This Is a True Story), a relatively cut-and-dried suicide became twisted, in certain media reports, into a tale of “Fargo”-driven obsession — a story that turned out to be no more “true” than the Coen film itself. But taking a page from John Ford, the Zellners have opted to film the legend, probably because it’s a better story, and one more in keeping with the wonderfully off-kilter worldview they have been deepening and expanding ever since their scrappy 1997 debut, “Plastic Utopia.” They are, at root, modern-day folk-tale tellers and mythmakers who find endless danger and wonderment in what the critic Greil Marcus famously dubbed the old, weird America, from “Goliath’s” anodyne suburbia to “Kumiko’s” beautifully windswept Minnesota flatlands.
For the better part of two hours, the Zellners here strike and maintain a tone pitched halfway between whimsy and madness, as Kumiko doggedly pursues her idee fixe, trying, in effect, to enter the world of the moving image, like Buster Keaton’s dozing movie projectionist in “Sherlock, Jr.” And who among us can not relate to that? It’s a tricky narrative to bring to a satisfying close, and yet “Kumiko” pulls that off impressively well, without violating the integrity of its unforgettable central character — an ending that says, in effect, “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the flickering light.”
Working with their biggest budget to date and two separate crews an ocean apart, the Zellners have pulled off an exceptionally tricky logistical feat, with Tokyo scenes that feel authentically Japanese and Minnesota location shooting highlighted by d.p. Sean Porter’s rapturously wintry widescreen lensing. Original score by “indietronica” act the Octopus Project (which also scored “Kid-Thing”) adds just the right ambient vibe. As fans will note, this is not the first film to include scenes spoken in a foreign language, an honor that belongs to their sophomore sci-fi feature, “Frontier” (2001), performed entirely in the invented tongue known as Bulbovian.