The title of this feature debut by a pair of filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner may sound like a kitsch cartoon, evoking the same-sounding title of Dora the Explorer, but 105 mins of a dark, brooding, dysfunctional character drama prove anything but light and cartoonish. Deliberately subtitled ‘A Zellner Adventure’, it’s a key phrase that provides some shred of classic irony to this picture’s intention – the journey undertaken by the film’s titular protagonist is laced with self-contradiction and grand delusion. To put it roughly – Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is about a jaded Japanese woman who travels all the way to America to locate a bag of loot, after seeing Steve Buscemi burying a heap of dollars somewhere in the North Dakota snow in the Coen brothers’ seminal classic Fargo. It’s one thing to take a cue from a Coens film, and to make the concept sound and look convincing without betraying the spirit of its source inspiration is another, and the Zellners pull off an elegiac, occasionally funny, and devastating thesis on the power of cinematic escapism and the perils of taking a movie disclaimer ‘This is a true story’ ever so seriously.
We can all agree that anyone who genuinely believes that Fargo serves as a veritable treasure map is either monumentally crack-brained or just plain naïve – but it’s a testament to Rinko Kikuchi’s heartbreakingly sensitive performance that we somehow find empathy in Kumiko’s desperate bid for hope and happiness, no matter how simplistic or ill-conceived her goal is. Put yourself in Kumiko’s shoes for 24 hours – a solitary life lived between a cramped home and a claustrophobic office populated with cunts masquerading as colleagues and a humourless boss you endlessly serve cups of teas, in a human body whose sole function is to mainly exist and to get married and bear babies according to your biological mother – and it won’t be long until you start daydreaming any movie you see for the sheer need of escaping. It’s this existential banality of Kumiko’s life, painfully portrayed in detail, that leads this deeply introverted, antisocial heroine to pursue the case of money. And as soon as Kumiko hits the dreary, wintry landscape of north America, the Zellners’ film turns into equal parts absurd and unexpectedly funny, tonally consistent to the Coens’ signature touch, only that the Zellners have something more up their sleeve. There’s a finale that gives us something to chew on – an inspired coda that delivers a thoughtful character redemption that hammers home an even more shattering truth.