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Cross-cultural 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' traces a misguided journey of destiny
David Zellner as Policeman and Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko in "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter." - photo by Josh Terry
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter could have played out a couple of ways. On paper, it has the potential to be an oddball comedy, and it definitely has its funny moments. Instead, Kumiko takes its oddness very seriously, leaving the audience slightly bemused.

The protagonist is a Japanese woman just shy of 30 years old. She feels like a symbol of workplace sexism in Tokyo. Kumiko (played by Rinko Kikuchi) holds down a miserable office job, and is surrounded by younger women who are biding time until they get married.

Her boss, Mr. Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube), agitates her on a daily basis, ordering her around on monotonous tasks like dropping off his dry cleaning. When he isnt ordering her around, hes asking her about her personal life, such as why she isnt married yet. Its not because hes concerned for her future. Its because there are other younger girls waiting for a vacancy in the office.

If that werent bad enough, her mother is also pressuring her to move home until she gets married.

Audiences may remember Kikuchi from supporting roles in films such as Pacific Rim and The Brothers Bloom. She also netted an Oscar nomination for her role in 2006s Babel. Kikuchi plays Kumiko as a painfully shy, soft-spoken woman who manages to look exasperated and innocent at the same time.

Kumikos life of solitude features one source of excitement: She loves to hunt for treasure. As the film opens, Kumiko treks along a beach and into a remote cave, where she finds an unmarked VHS tape buried in the sand. The tape is a rotten dubbing of the Coen Brothers 1996 film Fargo, of all things.

Kumiko studies the tape as if shes decoding the Dead Sea Scrolls. When partway through the film, Steve Buscemis character buries a suitcase full of money in the North Dakota tundra, Kumiko mistakenly believes the events of the film are real. So when Mr. Sakagami gives her the company credit card one opportune day, Kumiko sets out on a journey of destiny.

The heart of Kumiko is found in the title characters missteps as she travels the United States and attempts to locate her fictional treasure. Encounters with local policemen, cab drivers and airport-based Christian missionaries are amusing without ever becoming laugh-out-loud funny. (Audiences will also enjoy the ultimate demise of Kumikos VHS tape.)

The comedy is repressed in part by the artistic spectacle of Kumikos cinematography, especially once the story arrives in the United States. Throughout the film, Kumiko wears a bright red coat that stands in stark contrast to the muted colors all around her. Whether director David Zellner is taking us through a decidedly non-glamorous Tokyo or the windswept landscape of North Dakota, a sense of quiet ponderousness and a deliberate pace prevail.

At 105 minutes, that deliberate pace ultimately undermines Kumikos impact, and an ambiguous ending may leave a lot of audiences wondering what message they were supposed to take from the experience.

Its also possible that the humor is restrained in order to honor the predicament of the protagonist. Either way, Kumiko is a moody film that hints at deeper meaning, but winds up cold and lonely in a poetic North Dakota snowdrift.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is not rated, but would likely draw a PG for some profanity and gore (Buscemis character is bloodied in the Fargo clips). It is presented in English and Japanese (with English subtitles).