There’s a scene in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter where the titular Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) stands, distraught, in her bathroom holding the remnants of a VHS copy of the Coen brothers film, Fargo that has been unwound and destroyed by her VCR. Before flushing the whole celluloid ball down the drain, Kumiko buries her face in the mass of film in a brief moment of feverish ecstasy, literally engulfing herself in the frames of a movie that encapsulates all of her hopes and dreams of a new life. No other moment in the film is this striking for me, and that's saying something in a film that's filled with striking and surprising moments. It's Kumiko's quirkiness, obsession, and complete devotion to her quest all summed up in a few minutes.Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter opens on a lonely Kumiko mysteriously finding a waterlogged but functional copy of Fargo in a cave, and proceeds to show her growing obsession with the film, specifically the scene in which Steve Buscemi stashes a large sum of money in the snow near a fence. Kumiko rewinds and rewatches the scene countless times and uses the images to construct a map to where this treasure is buried and abruptly abandons her job, her nagging mother, even her beloved rabbit Bunzo, and hops a plane to Minnesota to pursue the riches she believes she's 'discovered'.
This movie hinges on Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel) and her ability to effectively portray two characters — the withdrawn Kumiko of Tokyo who goes through the motions of being a participant in society but never truly fits, and the lost but heartbreakingly determined Kumiko of Minnesota who must rely on the unbelievable kindness of strangers to accomplish her task and claim her treasure. It's hard to argue that Kikuchi makes a single wrong acting choice here, always choosing the more difficult route of being subtle and spare rather than overdramaticizing the turmoil her character feels at every turn. This makes her few outbursts of joy, despair, and anger in the film seem truly meaningful. In short, it's one of the best performances I've seen this year.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is nothing short of a gorgeous film that harvests beauty from both the emptiness of Kumiko's Tokyo and the austere landscapes of Minnesota, though this is all background for Kumiko herself, who's in almost every frame. The Octopus Project's score bolsters every scene with a dreamlike quality that puts you right in Kumiko's head when necessary. It's a stirring combination of sight and sound all working together to make this fever dream of a story fill every space in the theatre.
Before I watched Kumiko and immediately afterwards, I had no idea why this movie was at After Dark. There's nothing remotely resembling science-fiction, action, and certainly not horror here. Some would call Kumiko's quest a futile one — little more than the delusions of someone on the fringe of madness — and the last third of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter features a host of well-meaning characters trying to convince Kumiko of this. But sometimes, when we grab onto something as powerful as a myth, it's impossible to let go, and that's why this film is at After Dark. We're all here - programmers, writers, directors, reviewers, and audience members - because we love film enough to follow it into the most unfamiliar and unforgiving places that it can possibly lead us.