A lonely Japanese woman becomes convinced that a satchel of money buried and lost in a fictional film, is in fact, real. With a crudely drawn treasure map and limited preparation, she escapes her structured life in Tokyo and embarks on a foolhardy quest across the frozen tundra of Minnesota in search of her mythical fortune.
The 1996 Oscar-winning Coen Brothers film 'Fargo' kicks off with the following title card, "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred" – which is absolutely untrue. But a disconnected 29-year-old Japanese office worker didn't know that.
'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' kicks off by showing its titular character, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), on a lesser treasure hunt that leads to her going on "the big one." With a needlepoint map, she finds a coastal cave that conceals a bootleg VHS copy of 'Fargo.' When she returns to her cluttered Tokyo apartment, she pops the cassette into her VCR and misreads the film's title card, believing that the movie itself is as true as a documentary. In her mind, there's a cash-filled briefcase buried in the snow alongside a long fence-lined highway that's ripe for the picking.
Just like 'Fargo,' 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' is also believed to tell a wildly and seemingly unbelievable true story. An urban legend surfaced years ago about a Japanese girl under this same circumstance who headed to North America. Like most urban legends and films that tout themselves as being "based on a true story," take what follows with a grain of salt.
With her boss' company credit card, Kumiko heads to the United States ill-equipped and ill-prepared. Unfortunately, her adventure doesn't begin until nearly halfway into the film. Everything that happens in Tokyo is slow, dry, humor-less and ultimately meaningless. It isn't until we get to North Dakota that 'Kumiko' ultimately finds its footing. With no surprise, much of the second half contains a Coen-esque sensibility that fittingly works quite well.
Once in the U.S., Kumiko meets colorful characters that finally warrant audience reaction. As if viewed through foreigner eyes, the Americans are made out to be distracted, clueless, bumbling, naïve, gullible characters – and it's entertaining! It's like they stepped right out of 'Fargo' and into 'Kumiko.' As much help as the equally disconnected Americans offer her, none of them take impatient Kumiko where she wants to go with the urgency that she would like. One-by-one she abandons them and heads off in search of her destiny like a Spanish conquistador.
The story of fictional Kumiko is a witty and fun one; however, there's not enough in 'The Treasure Hunter' to spread it out into a feature-length format. I feel that's the reason for so much pre-journey content set in Japan and for so much repetitious and meandering content once stateside. The concept is great, but the structure can't sustain it.
For the Coen fans out there, although far from being perfect, 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' is worth seeing once. The elements that work well really work well. Kikuchi delivers a strong performance, one that's praiseworthy on multiple occasions. A long-take phone conversation between her and her mother is stunning perfection. The screenplay's ability to replicate Coen characters, scenarios and flavors of comedy is priceless. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. In those ways, 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' shines – but not brightly enough to keep it from getting bogged down by the rest.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' arrives on Blu-ray with a Region A BD-25 in a blue Elite keepcase. Upon popping the disc into your player, you're forced to watch an FBI warning, an Anchor Bay vanity reel and a commentary disclaimer prior to skippable trailers for 'God Help the Girl,' 'The Better Angels,' 'In Your Eyes' and 'Little Accidents.' Unrated by the MPAA, there's no language, sex or violence. My prediction is that it would receive a clean PG-13 rating solely for the themes.
Despite landing on a less-than-convenient BD-25 disc, 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' features a beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that truly enhances the film's gorgeous imagery and only features one minor flaw. Before we get to the good stuff, let's run through the pesky issue. The film kicks off with a gorgeous view of a seaside setting. As Kumiko's vibrant red hoodie causes her to stand out amongst the natural colors and tones that surround her, she enters a dark cave. From within the narrow tunnel that once lead to a munitions stockpile during World War II, we see her silhouette as she enters into a blindingly bright shaft of light. During these shots, the black levels lose their spot-on deep nature that they carry throughout the rest of the film. The gray wavering black imagery is the only issue within the whole picture.
Shot digitally, 'Kumiko' carries consistently sharp visuals. From start to finish, it's absolutely crisp and crystal clear. Clothing patterns, object textures, facial pores and individual hairs are always visible. The on-screen content offers plenty of instances for banding, yet bands never result, allowing for the wonderful cinematography to shine. Even the most standard settings and mundane actions are made to be the most stunning things you've ever seen.
Once thought to be extinct, 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' has been given the rare and elusive 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. Although the format has been phasing out, had it always been as strong as this one, that might be the case.
The music of 'Kumiko' sounds fantastic. Depending on the location, the score can evolve to feature different styles – but no matter the style, from dainty strings to overbearing organs, it always fully fills the space with nice dynamics. The vocal track is fantastic, carrying the qualities of the surrounding environment without sounding cheap or low budget. Locker room chatter is echoey, bouncing around the hard surfaces. Deep male voices are rich with resonance.
The effects mix is quite a bit stronger than you might expect from a little indie flick that couldn't even bother going through the MPAA's ratings board. There are layers upon layers of effects. Crowded Tokyo sidewalks are filled with city music, voices, cars and the clickity-clack of high heels on pavement. When traveling on foot through the snow-covered American plains, the bitter and biting cold winds can be heard whipping from one side of the theater to the other. These and all other sounds are mixed dynamically throughout the channels.
'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter' functions on a fantastic concept, but is damned by that same limiting concept. The urban legend that spurned the screenplay is so thin that it hinders the screenplay's scope, resulting in the use of needless filler throughout the film. As is, it's pretty and well-acted, but overloaded with unnecessary content. Both the video and audio qualities are fantastic, but with the only worthwhile special feature being a commentary, it's lacking in that area. If you're curious about 'Kumiko' and want to see some Coen Brother-esque filmmaking, then I recommend giving it a rent - but that's it.