Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

This review originally appeared at Reel Spirituality

kumiko posterJoel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996) opens with a message saying the film is based on a true story. David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens with this same message shown from the opening seconds of Fargo from a well-worn VHS copy of the movie.

In more ways than one, Fargo is the beginning of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. After repeatedly viewing Fargo on an old VHS tape, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) believes she has discovered the location of the money Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buried in the snow in Fargo. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter tells the story of how Kumiko leaves her home in Tokyo and goes hunting for this treasure in Fargo, and the people she encounters on the way.

Cinematographer Sean Porter beautifully captures the snowy landscape of the Northern United States which is contrasted with Kumiko’s ever-present red hoody. In particular, this is shown during the credits, which roll over one long shot of Kumiko walking up a hill.

Kumiko rarely shares the frame with other people, but is usually isolated on screen. Even when she is in a crowd, the shallow depth of focus ensures that only Kumiko is in focus. When Kumiko is shown with other people she is usually shown opposite them, across a table or desk.

Throughout the movie Kumiko distances herself from people. Some of this is out of self-defense against her over bearing mother and her boss whose behavior borders on sexual harassment. In the process, however, she also shuts out people wishing to help her, including an old friend, and several people she encounters in Minnesota.

It is a testament to Kikuchi’s acting that despite Kumiko’s behavior, which includes lying, theft, and destruction of property, she remains a sympathetic figure throughout the film. Indeed, it is hard not to root for her as she journeys to Fargo, despite the obvious lack of treasure there.

Treasure appears several times in the teachings and parables of Jesus. Of these passages, Matthew 6:19 stands out, “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them” (CEB).

In many ways, Kumiko is a parable itself.  From the beginning, we know that Kumiko’s search for treasure is an empty one; the treasure she seeks doesn’t exist. No matter how much we might hope otherwise, we know that her search will ultimately be fruitless.

Several times during the movie, Kumiko encounters Minnesotans while on her search. Two evangelists, an older woman (Shirley Venard), and a Sheriff (played by director David Zellner) offer Kumiko viable alternatives to her earthly treasure. Some of these encounters give Kumiko hope, but not enough to change her path. She refuses to believe that the treasure she is looking for is fake.

For much of the United States, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter will be released during Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday. To commemorate, churches around the world wave palm branches, rightly celebrating Christ as King. Traditionally, these palm branches are saved until Ash Wednesday of the following year when the dry fronds will be ground up, burned, and used to make the ashes used in Ash Wednesday services. In this way, we remember that when we expected a conquering king, Jesus instead came to be conquered. Like Peter, we recognize that Jesus is Messiah, but miss what Messiah is really all about.

Like Kumiko, we hunt for treasure, but all too often miss what is the most valuable, and instead chase after something that doesn’t even exist. God may even send people to meet us, and to offer us an alternative to the non-existent treasure we are hunting.

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