In comedy, delusional idées fixes can be fun, but to bear much existential (let alone tragic) weight, the dreamer needs to have Don Quixote–like stature, to suggest by force of his or her character that those windmills might be giants. No such thing is glimpsed in the deadpan tragicomedy Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, a hit at film festivals for its mixture of melancholy, mysticism, and sentimentality. It centers on a bedraggled, depressed, uncommunicative 29-year-old Japanese office worker (Rinko Kikuchi) who discovers a quivery videotape of Fargo on a beach and is instantly certain that the metal briefcase full of cash buried in the snow by a bloody Steve Buscemi is still there, by a wire fence in North Dakota, waiting for her to find. Belittled by a mother and elderly employer who question why she’s still unmarried, Kumiko makes off with a company credit card and flies to the other side of the world, determined to plunge into the mist of the U.S. mainland’s most frigid peninsula.
Directed by David Zellner from a script he wrote with his brother, Nathan, the film has its tender mercies, as well-meaning Minnesotans attempt to reach out to this preoccupied Japanese woman with almost no English. Particularly sweet is the police officer played by Zellner (David), who gently tries to explain that movies are fake while she gazes in horror through those big eyes on that wide face and cries, “No fake. Not fake. Real.” There’s no saving some people. At her best, Kikuchi evokes the little match girl, bathing her bleak existence with too-brief warmth. But what a fucked-up movie on which to fixate.