Picture this: You’re working in what seems like a dead-end job, picking up and dropping off your boss’ dry cleaning, while your co-workers giggle and talk about eye-enhancement procedures. Then, one day, you find a buried VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ Fargo on the beach. You watch it, mistake the fictional film for a documentary, and become infatuated with the buried suitcase full of money. You meticulously chart the location of the “buried treasure,” holding a piece of fabric up against the television screen and embroidering a makeshift map. Then, one day, your boss asks you to buy a present for his wife on the company card. With what feels like an unlimited supply of funds, you head over to North Dakota and set out to retrieve the award you believe you deserve. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Kumiko the Treasure Hunter. But, like all good films, the plotline doesn’t even scratch the surface of the picture.
Kumiko is the quintessential Sundance film: With vibrant cinematography, it’s highly conceptual, introspective, and touches on dark human emotions and quirks. Still, no matter how brilliant the aesthetics of the film, it wouldn’t be nearly as potent if not for Rinko Kikuchi’s titular performance. “I’ve been waiting for this kind of role for a long time,” says Kikuchi, who received a nomination for best female lead at the Film Independent Spirit Awards for Kumiko. “When I got my hands on it, I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve really been wanting to do.’”
There is very little dialogue in the film: Aside from brief conversations with her boss, born-again tourist guides, a woman who brings Kumiko into her home from the street, and a mostly one-sided relationship with a local Fargo sheriff, Kumiko operates with burning looks and half-hearted sighs. “You know, she wasn’t very communicative, she didn’t talk with people, really,” says Kikuchi. “She had a unique aura or air about her, so I gave a lot of thought to that.” One of the most fascinating things about Kumiko’s character is that there is an obvious yet perplexing behind Kumiko’s lonerism. “I don’t think she’s considering herself to be isolated,” Kikuchi explains. “Her family, her mother—they don’t understand what it is that she believes in. And at the office, she’s told, ‘Get yourself married.’ But I don’t think she’s lonely. She has something she believes in, and she’s living that belief. If anything, when she went over to Minnesota, there was so much hope for her.”
The one exception is her connection to her rabbit, Bunzo. “I don’t know whether you could say Bunzo understood her, but I think Bunzo was the only one that was communicating with her in any real sense,” says Kikuchi. “And I can understand that, as a human being. And in some ways, that’s the appealing aspect of Kumiko.”
In fact, the first person she’s shown to have a real connection with tries to point out to her that Fargo isn’t a documentary. “It happens often in our lives that what you believe in is not necessarily what somebody else believes in, or that other people believe in, period,” says Kikuchi. Though Kikuchi urges against defining a meaning or overarching theme to the story, she wants the viewer to watch with an open imagination and ponder one question: “Where do you find happiness? What happiness is for one person is not necessarily happiness for everyone.”