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Cross-cultural ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ traces a misguided journey of destiny

SHARE Cross-cultural ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ traces a misguided journey of destiny

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” could have played out a couple of ways. On paper, it has the potential to be an oddball comedy, and it definitely has its funny moments. Instead, “Kumiko” takes its oddness very seriously, leaving the audience slightly bemused.

The protagonist is a Japanese woman just shy of 30 years old. She feels like a symbol of workplace sexism in Tokyo. Kumiko (played by Rinko Kikuchi) holds down a miserable office job, and is surrounded by younger women who are biding time until they get married.

Her boss, Mr. Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube), agitates her on a daily basis, ordering her around on monotonous tasks like dropping off his dry cleaning. When he isn’t ordering her around, he’s asking her about her personal life, such as why she isn’t married yet. It’s not because he’s concerned for her future. It’s because there are other younger girls waiting for a vacancy in the office.

If that weren’t bad enough, her mother is also pressuring her to move home until she gets married.

Audiences may remember Kikuchi from supporting roles in films such as “Pacific Rim” and “The Brothers Bloom.” She also netted an Oscar nomination for her role in 2006’s “Babel.” Kikuchi plays Kumiko as a painfully shy, soft-spoken woman who manages to look exasperated and innocent at the same time.

Kumiko’s life of solitude features one source of excitement: She loves to hunt for treasure. As the film opens, Kumiko treks along a beach and into a remote cave, where she finds an unmarked VHS tape buried in the sand. The tape is a rotten dubbing of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film “Fargo,” of all things.

Kumiko studies the tape as if she’s decoding the Dead Sea Scrolls. When partway through the film, Steve Buscemi’s character buries a suitcase full of money in the North Dakota tundra, Kumiko mistakenly believes the events of the film are real. So when Mr. Sakagami gives her the company credit card one opportune day, Kumiko sets out on a journey of destiny.

The heart of “Kumiko” is found in the title character’s missteps as she travels the United States and attempts to locate her fictional treasure. Encounters with local policemen, cab drivers and airport-based Christian missionaries are amusing without ever becoming laugh-out-loud funny. (Audiences will also enjoy the ultimate demise of Kumiko’s VHS tape.)

The comedy is repressed in part by the artistic spectacle of “Kumiko’s” cinematography, especially once the story arrives in the United States. Throughout the film, Kumiko wears a bright red coat that stands in stark contrast to the muted colors all around her. Whether director David Zellner is taking us through a decidedly non-glamorous Tokyo or the windswept landscape of North Dakota, a sense of quiet ponderousness and a deliberate pace prevail.

At 105 minutes, that deliberate pace ultimately undermines “Kumiko’s” impact, and an ambiguous ending may leave a lot of audiences wondering what message they were supposed to take from the experience.

It’s also possible that the humor is restrained in order to honor the predicament of the protagonist. Either way, “Kumiko” is a moody film that hints at deeper meaning, but winds up cold and lonely in a poetic North Dakota snowdrift.

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is not rated, but would likely draw a PG for some profanity and gore (Buscemi’s character is bloodied in the “Fargo” clips). It is presented in English and Japanese (with English subtitles).

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.