First, the filmmakers. Dan Schoenbrun‘s interviewed them for, appropriately enough, Filmmaker: “David and Nathan Zellner are longtime stalwarts of the Sundance Film Festival, and the American microbudget film scene in general, carving out a niche for themselves over the last decade-plus as purveyors of a uniquely strange brand of Americana. Their feature work (including 2012’s haunting Kid-Thing) and their idiosyncratic and unforgettable shorts (Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, don’t worry, lives up to its title) have long found the Zellners fascinated with contemporary American folklore and fairy tales, and their newest film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, is no exception.” Schoenbrun‘s followed up with his thoughts on the film but beware: Right at the top in bold italics, “Warning!” Spoilers abound, so you might want to save that one for later.
EW‘s Lindsey Bahr has talked with the Zellners as well, and she neatly introduces us to the basic gist of Kumiko: “On the surface, Kumiko is fanciful. As portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi, the isolated, lonely lead character of David and Nathan Zellner’s epic Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter dons an oversized red hoodie, sports a messy cropped bob, has one friend—a bunny named Bunzo—and leaves Japan on a quest to a buried treasure. Specifically, the briefcase full of cash that she sees buried in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo after she finds a distorted VHS copy of the 1996 film. It could have easily devolved into whimsy, but on film, she’s a driven folk adventurer on a high stakes, utterly essential quest.”
Now then, the reviews, beginning with Noel Murray at the Dissolve: “Even though I’m familiar with the Zellners’ work, it took about a half-hour or so for me to get on Kumiko’s wavelength. The early scenes in Japan struck me as over-mannered, stretching out silences indulgently. Once Kumiko lands in Minnesota, the pace picks up a bit, there’s more dialogue, and the movie becomes more stunning visually, as the Zellners follow the underprepared (and underdressed) Kumiko into the American wilderness. The culture clash is an important part of the second half of Kumiko—there’s some humor that plays off of ‘Minnesota nice,’ but without the broad accents of Fargo—but even more important is how invested Kumiko is in proving that what she saw in a movie is ‘real.’ There’s a spooky poetry to the climactic sequences of Kumiko, as a one-of-a-kind individual disappears into the snow.”
Kumiko is “a wonderfully strange and beguiling adventure story,” finds Variety‘s Scott Foundas. “Kumiko evokes some of the characters the great Setsuko Hara played for Ozu, except where Hara’s characters were always joyful, self-assured spinsters, Kumiko seems lost in a melancholy haze, apart from everyone—apart, even, from herself. It’s a marvelous role for Kikuchi, who has the intensity of the great silent film stars, and who’s fascinating to watch even when Kumiko is doing nothing more than sitting solemnly by the window of her apartment eating ramen noodles as a rain begins to fall. At every turn, we can sense what’s going on behind Kumiko’s doleful, downcast eyes; Kikuchi pulls us deeply into her world.”
“There’s every reason to suspect that the woman is genuinely crazy, but she’s more like a secular holy fool anointed to follow her dream in a protected state of grace,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter. “Also crucial to keeping the narrowly focused film interesting throughout is Sean Porter’s strong and strikingly composed cinematography, which maximizes the visual potential of what must be the first film ever to feature Japan and Minnesota as its only locations.”
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a kind of peculiar, intelligent fairy tale,” writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “While Kumiko is wearing a Red Riding Hood-esque hoodie, the connection isn’t overt, and only when her voyage leads her into the snowy dreamscape of the second half do the more fantastical elements of the film drift toward nightmare, as when point of view becomes mysteriously ambiguous when she enters a dark, frigid forest in search of her treasure. Both funny and lugubrious with respect for its characters’ instability, Kumiko suggests a darkness more evocative for never being spelled out.”
Nathaniel Rogers gives it a B+, adding that “it really grew on me 24 hours after seeing it.” For Film.com, Jason Guerrasio talks with Rinko Kikuchi and the Zellners. Ioncinema Sundance “Trading Cards”: David and Nathan Zellner and producer Chris Ohlson. At Indiewire, Nigel M. Smith talks with Kikuchi and Eric Eidelstein interviews cinematographer Sean Porter.
Updates, 2/1: “Self-reflexivity has always been one of the cinema’s most natural and frequently occurring impulses,” writes David Ehrlich at Film.com, “and David and Nathan Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter continues a tradition forged by examples as disparate as Sherlock Jr. and The Purple Rose of Cairo in how it explicitly articulates the idea that only the most useless of movies are confined to the screen on which they play. In fact, one of the most compelling undercurrents of the digital revolution and the ubiquitous availability of streaming content is that it’s becoming more difficult for viewers to identify where the cinema ends and life begins…. Less of an homage to Fargo than the next appendage of the same exquisite corpse, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter plays like a dryly hilarious riff on Don’t Look Now, but the woman in the red coat has been recast as the lead and transformed into a magical fool like one of Lars von Trier’s Golden Hearts.”
For Beth Hanna, writing at Thompson on Hollywood, “the story proves to be one not just of eccentricity but of passion. Sometimes a vivid interior life is worth risking everything for.”
But for Alexandra Marvar, writing at Cinespect, “Kikuchi’s strong performance and Sean Porter’s beautiful cinematography linking the loneliness of Tokyo to that of Minnesota aren’t enough to make the Zellners’ latest indie effort a Sundance breakout.”