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Truth or Treasure

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter pits fantasy against reality in the search for happiness
Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko
Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko

Kumiko is as wide-eyed and offbeat a beautiful loner as there ever was. 

Strip away the playful tenderness and uplifting score of the French film Amélie, and it has much in common with Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, the latest work by American actor and director David Zellner, known for his indie flicks Goliath and Kid-Thing.

Both films star nearly mute twentysomethings with pixie haircuts, stuck in dead-end jobs with nary a fulfilling relationship in sight. And both women cope by wrapping themselves in a protective cocoon of make-believe.

But whereas Amélie’s fantasies lead her to love, Kumiko’s send her down a darker path, propelling her from the sallow urbanism of Tokyo to the snow-whipped landscapes of Minnesota. 

 And the film wastes no time presenting its catalyst: A VHS tape of Fargo — the 1996 dark comedy by the Coen brothers — that Kumiko (played with tempered grace by Rinko Kikuchi) finds mysteriously buried near a coastal cave in Japan.

While Kumiko spends her days as a dejected “office lady,” where her graying boss tells her, at 29, she’s too old for the position and should be married by now, she spends her nights fixated on the film, which opens with the text “This is a true story.” She studies one scene — when Steve Buscemi’s character buries a cash-filled briefcase in the snow — tracing its location and hand-stitching a map.

Her sole lifeline is her rabbit, Bunzo, who she feeds ramen noodles with chopsticks.

Kumiko, who speaks only broken English, flees to Minnesota, telling her mother over the phone that she’s “on the brink of an incredible discovery.” 

Here the film hits its Odyssean — and comedic — stride as Kumiko interacts with a string of folksy Midwesterners: A man running an airport info booth tells her he too was once lost but came to see the light; an elderly women picks her up off the street during a blizzard and offers, “solitude is only fancy loneliness,” before suggesting they go to Mall of America. Then there’s the sympathetic but befuddled policeman, played by Zellner, who gently tries to tell her that Fargo is fiction. 

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is beautifully shot and accompanied by a piercing score by The Octopus Project, veering near the haunting soundscapes Stanley Kubrick employed in films like The Shining. And while it’s a lovely little existential adventure, Zellner as director lets much go unsaid — too much at times. It’s unclear whether Kumiko truly believes in the merit of her quest or if she has to believe, and perhaps that’s because what defines her are the voids in her life, the negative space. Who is this woman we’re rooting for?

Wrapped in layers of reality itself — it’s based on a true story turned urban legend — Kumiko pits truth against belief, posing that whichever leads to happiness is the worthy path.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter opens Friday, April 3, at Bijou Metro.