Nathan and David Zellner's latest film, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter", takes as their main character a woman not far removed from the socially inept, slacker-aesthetic formula that drove the emotions behind the man (David Zellner himself) fixated on finding his lost cat amid his crumbling relationship in their terrific film "Goliath". How many times have we all convinced ourselves of a certain lie or created a unique diversion to stiffen some oncoming problem? The Zellner Brothers have exorcised those devious personal caveats and created a full length fairy tale wherein the fragile Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) travels halfway across the globe, partly to escape her deteriorating life in Japan, in search of a fictional bag of loot from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie "Fargo". Whether its a crumbling marriage and furry animals or a life-altering event in a faraway new world (as its subtitled once she lands in Minneapolis), the Zellner's seem to have a knack for elevating the inherent sadness found in socially acceptable structures such as marriage and cultural obligations.
For Kumiko, those cultural obligations include a job she despises, working as an office lady for a man who snidely alludes to her status of non-marriage and a team of fellow peers far more interested in their new eye lash treatments than actual human interaction. In between taking her boss' suits to and from the cleaners, Kumiko's only pleasure involves the incessant watching of a worn out VHS tape of the movie "Fargo", which she found discarded. Adding to her malaise is her mother, heard but never seen, racking her with guilt-trip phone calls to either marry or come back and live with her. Between all that undue, inchoate pressure, it's no wonder Kimuko slowly invents the rationalization that the "based on true events" titles at the beginning of the film are there to lead her to the money buried by criminal Carl (Steve Buscemi) along a desolate, snow-covered fence line in North Dakota.
As Kumiko, actress Kikuchi (of "Babel" and "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo") is a revelation. Never completely belying the nature of mental derangement most likely in her young character, she gives a modulated performance. Just watch the scene where she inadvertently runs into an old friend, Michi (Kanako Higashi), on the street. Kikuchi is restrained, protective, frail..... as if the ordinary albeit numbingly casual words that rise from Michi's mouth hurt her with every breath. Expressive through her eyes only, Kikuchi realigns her performance into something more determined once she arrives in America, unable to fully communicate with the people she comes into contact with, transferring her presence into a wide-eyed but defensive sponge. It's one of the more remarkable performances of the year so far.
But perhaps the most striking effect of "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" is its ability to rotate our expectations of a land I fully thought I understood. Like the best works of German auteur Wim Wenders, where his poetic and free-spirited men and woman traverse through the vast yet marginal corners of this great nation, there was always an outsider's perspective which made the familiar expanses feel antique, slightly deranged and even weird. We often felt their spatial and cultural dislocation. Even though the Zellner Brothers are Texas natives, they duplicate this same fresh perspective to dizzying heights, such as when Kumiko enters a roadside cafe and the camera slowly slides behind her, partially hazy at the edges, and the place's kitschy, baroque flavor looks and feels downright anomalous. It's a wonderful moment in a film full of them.
Even though, ultimately, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter", supposes a dark denouement, it also rallies hard for the belief that, sometimes, the best medicine is to lose ourselves in a totally inept faith of something... anything. Even if we never find that cat, the search is more rewarding than the catch.