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‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’: Quiet emotions and miraculous visuals

BY PATRICK Z. MCGAVIN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

The entrancing fifth feature of the Zellner brothers, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” is like found art in the beguiling, haunting manner it combines the seemingly ridiculous and desperate with an ineffable and quiet sadness.

David Zellner directed a script he co-wrote with Nathan Zellner. The movie is fashioned from a 2001 story of a Japanese woman found dead of an apparent suicide in the Minnesota woods that was mistakenly ascribed to her supposed assumption the hidden cache of money at the end of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 crime drama “Fargo” was real.

The brothers have constructed a compelling two-part structure, a 45-minute Tokyo-set prologue and the remarkable hourlong American section, called appropriately, “The New World.” Working with the superb cinematographer Sean Porter they find some striking visual parallels between the two parts, especially how they link the central character’s extreme disassociation.

The Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) is sensational as the title character who, as the movie opens, discovers in a mysterious cavern on a beach a battered VHS copy of the American film, believing it a treasure map. “I am like a Spanish Conquistador,” she says.

Fleeing from a punishing job as an “office lady,” where she performs demeaning assignments for her manager, Kumiko turns up in Minneapolis determined to locate her private fortune.

Kumiko’s odyssey shifts to the picaresque as she navigates a series of perverse and unexpected encounters, her plight increasingly realized as a painful folly after her stolen company credit card is discovered and she has very limited financial resources.

She is at the mercy of strangers. “Solitude is just fancy loneliness,” a widowed farmer (Shirley Venard) observes. The two brothers are part of the absurdist gallery. Nathan Zellner is hilarious as an airport tourist official (“It’s okay to be lost,” he assures her) and David Zellner proves her unwitting savior as a sympathetic small-town deputy.

Visually, the movie is a small miracle. The brothers build on striking imagery, from the harsh, cold spaces that sharply illustrate Japanese corporate conformity to the bleak wintry and desolate American landscapes. Two different shots of Kumiko framed from behind as she walks from her desultory Minnesota motel or as she rides alone on a chairlift are particularly somber and evocative.

As her character edges toward madness, Kikuchi evokes a vulnerability and fragility that blurs all psychological distinction. Like the opening, the ending is enigmatic, either a salvation or indicative of a particularly cruel and sad fate. Either way, like its heroine, the movie glows.

[s3r star=3/4]

Amplify Releasing presents a film directed by David Zellner. Written by David and Nathan Zellner. Running time: 104 minutes. No MPAA rating. In English and Japanese with subtitles. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.