Kumiko, the treasure hunter

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I remember the piece in the Guardian in June 2003 called ‘Death in the snow’ by Paul Berczeller, where he outlined his fascination with the story of a young Japanese woman who just showed up in snow-covered Minnesota. The locals, including the police, were convinced she was searching for a buried briefcase full of money, shown in the Coen brothers film ‘Fargo,’ which starts with the line ‘this is a true story.’ Read the Guardian “Death in the snow’ story here.

Berczeller made an inventive, low budget film using mostly stills, restaged sequences and interviews, to tell the story of the real life Tonako Konishi, which seemed to end badly for the lonely Tokyo office worker. “A hunter later found her body in woodland,” says Berczeller, “near the village of Detroit Lakes, which lies on a road between Fargo and Brainerd.”

Berczeller’s version of the story is both haunting and compelling, and the weirdness and sadness of this lonely woman’s story seems all too real and poignant. Could more have been done in Tokyo and Minnesota to help her, you wonder, as she lies dead in the snow in clothes totally unsuited to the winter harshness of the environment? Did she really believe the Coen brothers’ 1996 story was real, or was she just a lost soul wandering in a foreign wilderness?

Kumiko is an interesting film, but it fails to find the real treasure in this tragically human story.

Kumiko, the treasure hunter is the Zellner brothers’ version of this story, fleshed out to give a portrait of the life Kumiko leads before leaving Tokyo, and takes a lighter approach to the story when the location turns to Minnesota.

There’s a dark comedic approach to the second half of the film, that’s understandable if you allow for the fact that the Zellner bothers have used the original as a jumping off point. However, you can’t help wondering if they’ve missed the chance of telling a more compelling story and of making a more arresting film.

Kumiko, played by international Japanese actor Rinko Kikuchi famous from Babel and Norwegian Wood, is totally mesmerising, her every gesture dominating the screen. Given producer credit you have to think that the Japanese star was on board with the tone and direction of the film, but I can’t help thinking that her character and performance would have been even better if the film’s overall approach had been different.

There’s a great story to be told how vulnerable, sensitive people can become confused between art and reality. On one level that is the essence of comedy, but on another level it asks questions of art and reality itself and in this film the direction and the script miss a great opportunity and perhaps it leaves the skills of the iconic leading actress undervalued and misplaced.

There’s an enduring myth, human-interest story and an urban legend buried at the heart of Kumiko, the treasure hunter, that’s fascinating on many levels. It’s an interesting and worthwhile film, but it fails to find the real treasure in this tragically human story

Watch Paul Berczeller’s short film ‘This is a true story’ here.


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