Austin-based sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner have been cranking out offbeat, surrealist comedy features and shorts that have gained a minor cult following on the film festival circuit for over a decade, but the profoundly engaging "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" successfully broadens their sensibilities. Anchored by the remarkably sensitive presence of lead actress Rinko Kikuchi in every scene, the Zellners' elegant portrait of an alienated Japanese woman intent on discovering the fictional buried treasure from "Fargo" elevates its zany premise to poetic heights.
But make no mistake: This weirdly touching and ultimately quite sad character study echoes previous Zellner outings "Goliath" and "Kid-Thing" with its focus on interminably solitary individuals led down the rabbit hole of their absurd quests — only in this case, the outlandish aspects of the plot have been carefully embedded in the entirely believable pathos of its delusional star. The brothers' strongest emotional achievement, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" pushes their style up to a new level of sophistication.
Anyone familiar with the Zellners' previous efforts will immediately detect a mature quality to their latest outing, which opens with the grainy VHS image from the apocryphal opening title card of "Fargo" that professes its contents to be a true story. From there, the brothers — who co-write all their projects, while David directs solo — gradually lay out the quiet isolation that Kumiko (Kikuchi) experiences in her drab existence. Held down by a dead-end assistant job, she consoles herself by regularly spitting in her boss' tea, while staying up into the late hours of the night scanning individual frames from a dubbed version of "Fargo" to determine the location of the movie's suitcase full of money.
During the scene in question, when Steve Buscemi's wounded character pathetically buries his loot in the snow, Kumiko continually freezes the tape and pours over the minor details, using a scientific method of her own invention to locate the treasure on a map. The movie's "true story" assertion provides all the justification she needs to abandon her job and use her company account to buy a one-way ticket to Minnesota, a decision that leads the movie into the main setting and a hynotic travelogue. However, since the Zellners depict the entire narrative from their protagonist's confused perspective, Kumiko's arrival at the Minnesota airport is subtitled "The New World," marking her transition from daydreamer to outright adventurer — although mystique of her task creates an uneasy tension with its outright lunacy. When she chooses to leave her pet rabbit on the subway, the scene is simultaneously sweet and ridiculous, epitomizing the Zellners' perceptive approach to melding zany irreverence with the melancholic dimensions of real life.
The Zellners flesh out Kumiko's personal life just enough to prove she's got plenty to abandon, including a pushy mother who voices concern over the phone over the lack of romance in her life. Nevertheless, her commitment to her pointless search is never fully explained; whether she's mentally unstable or in denial, she remains quietly driven to find the makeshift "X" on her trusty map. But even while it's difficult to fully buy her naiveté, Kikuchi is fascinating to watch as she get increasingly buried in an alien environment. The actress barely speaks more than a few words, but her serious, calculated gaze hints at the confounding thought patterns unfolding beneath it.
As Kumiko veers from one empty part of the state to another, her outlandish trip finds her encountering a variety of American eccentrics baffled by her presence. In particular, a kind-hearted old woman encourages her to vacation in a warmer climate and a well-intentioned police officer (David Zellner) hilariously unsettled by Kumiko's dedication illuminate the two way street in which everything about Kumiko gets lost in translation. She's engrossed in multiple fictions at once: the possibility that the "Fargo" treasure exists and the idea that finding it will somehow improve her aimless life. Her inability to take advantage of the friendliness she encounters along her way creates an encroaching somber atmosphere even as she barrels ahead.
Despite a plot that naturally owes a debt to the Coen brothers, the influence of other directors stand out with greater prominence: "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" is closer in tone to Werner Herzog's dreamlike approach to rendering the Midwest in poetic terms. The combination of an eternally crestfallen lead and the black comedy of her mission have already led some to compare the movie to the oeuvre of Alexander Payne, who's listed as an executive producer along with writing partner Jim Taylor. But the ultimate sequence of events primarily reflect the filmmakers behind the camera, as they probe their character's irregular subjectivity with an eloquent focus on her irrational commitment. Aided by Sean Porter's lyrical cinematography, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" effectively takes on a fairy tale quality in its climactic scenes, while Octopus Project's trancelike score creates a haunting sense of dislocation.
The movie's closing minutes of contain the finest images of the Zellners' entire filmography, positioning Kumiko as an a preposterous lost soul wandering the snowy terrain in a torn blanket and hoodie, seeming adrift in the maze she has invented for herself. Striking a complex tone of tragedy and uplift at the same time, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" both celebrates the escapist power of personal fantasies and bears witness to their dangerous extremes. It's the rare case of a story that's inspirational and devastating at once.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well received after its Sundance premiere, the movie should garner some attention for Kikuchi's performance, though its quirky narrative may deter larger companies from taking a risk on it. Nevertheless, it's guaranteed to receive the widest release of the Zellners' careers, with the potential to bring recognition of their work to new heights.