SXSW Film: ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’

L & A Editor

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Given its name, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” might seem like a light and whimsical tale at first glance. The titular character has a pet rabbit named Bunzo, is delightfully passive-aggressive and likes to sew treasure maps onto large pieces of fabric. Kumiko is weird, deadpan and cares about almost nothing other than finding treasure.

Yet this is far from a quirky-cute film about a young dreamer, though, for better or worse. Kumiko is in her late twenties, works an “office girl” job in Tokyo, and is obsessed with a scene in “Fargo” in which a character buries a suitcase of money in a snowy field. Kumiko is convinced this suitcase actually exists, and meticulously devises a plan to travel to Fargo and dig up the money.

Within the first hour of the film, it becomes clear that delusion and dogma replace any kind of whimsy the plot might present. Kumiko is not some manic pixie dream girl type–she has clear mental problems and a destructive streak that often threatens to take over her life. The only real emotion she ever displays is pure rage, which happens when someone tries to tell her the treasure is not real. Even through the lens of mental illness, some of Kumiko’s motives and intentions are completely opaque. And yet, the viewer is dragged along through her downhill journey, a journey whose final act becomes increasingly obvious.

This makes watching “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” a largely frustrating experience. On one hand, this could mean director David Zellner is doing his job right. As the film progresses, it becomes easy to feel just as unsympathetic toward Kumiko as Kumiko feels toward every other character. Maybe Kumiko’s story is supposed to be frustrating, making the audience just as on-edge and impatient as Kumiko. If you squint, the story could serve as social commentary on Japanese culture or global perception of mental illness. 

Or it could just be a purposely weird, dark, dreamy narrative gone wrong. Only so much good can be said for a movie where the ending comes as a relief. Though actress Rinko Kikuchi plays Kumiko with impressive intensity and commitment to her delusions, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” is an unsettling ride and, like Kumiko herself, skirts the larger issues at hand in favor of an interesting story.