Minnesota Nice

David Zellner, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes. Deputy Caldwell and Kumiko (David Zellner and Rinko Kikuchi). Photo: Sean Porter.

ALTHOUGH ADORNED in a variety of distinct outfits—whether a thick cherry-red hoodie, an “office lady” uniform, or a motel-room bedspread repurposed as a poncho—the title character of David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter seems never to change her carriage, her shoulders slumped and her eyes always cast downward. Played by Rinko Kikuchi (best known for her portrayal of a deaf Japanese teenager in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s globe-hopping Babel from 2006), Kumiko can barely endure direct eye contact, or any other form of human interaction. Her nights are spent in a cluttered Tokyo apartment, which she shares with her pet rabbit, Bunzo, and where she compulsively rewatches a battered VHS copy of the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996)—itself unearthed during Kumiko’s opening-scene spelunking—cueing up the moment in which Steve Buscemi’s character buries a briefcase full of money. Fastidiously mapping out the coordinates of the hidden loot, details that she then cross-stitches onto cloth, the twenty-nine-year-old misfit sets out for the American Midwest to excavate the riches.

Zellner’s film, which he wrote with his brother and frequent collaborator, Nathan, originated in an Internet-generated story, eventually exposed as a myth, from 2001 about a Japanese woman, also putatively seeking Fargo’s fictional cache, who was found dead in a Minnesota field. The siblings’ fable about an idée fixe has its own obsessions, namely Kumiko’s handcrafted maps and other analog and artisanal artifacts. To have a bunny play such a central role also risks an overreliance on kawaii. Yet the film, especially in its second half, after Kumiko lands at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, is resolutely more invested in, and sympathetic toward, its heroine than her fetish objects.

The movie’s obliquely amiable charms are most apparent in the protagonist’s encounters with random Minnesotans, each of whom tries to aid Kumiko in her monomaniacal mission (“I want to go Fargo”). Unlike most of the disdainfully sketched ancillary characters in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013)—another film whose obstinate protagonist is convinced that millions await him—those in Zellner’s movie may be idiosyncratic, but they are also unfailingly kind. (Coincidentally, Payne serves as one of Kumiko’s executive producers.) “It’s just a normal movie. Documentary is real, and a normal movie is fake,” Deputy Caldwell (played by the director) tries to explain to the Japanese visitor, the police officer’s blunt cine-taxonomy failing to convince Kumiko of the futility of her quest.

Yet her expedition, no matter now misguided, is portrayed as nothing less than heroic. Frequently framed as an effulgently hued figure in a vast monochromatic panorama—whether in a sea of black-clad passersby in the Tokyo subway or against the blinding whiteness of Minnesota expanses—Kumiko is imbued with unmistakable grandeur. Her gaze fixed on the ground, she sees what escapes us.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens March 18 in limited release.