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'Kumiko' Follows A Quest For A Film's Snowy Treasure

Withdrawn and inarticulate, the heroine of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter lives primarily inside her own imagination. And during at least two crucial scenes, this deadpan comedy seems to crawl in there with her.

Director David Zellner's film (co-written by brother Nathan Zellner) riffs on an urban legend. In 2001, a young Japanese woman was found dead in frigid northern Minnesota. She almost certainly committed suicide, but the story arose that she was searching for the loot buried in the Coen brothers' Fargo, which begins with the winking assertion that "this is a true story."

The Zellners' movie opens with the same line, glimpsed through the visual noise of a badly decomposed VHS copy of Fargo. Then the filmmakers rewind to show, allegedly, how Kumiko got the tape: during a sort of Minnesota Jones adventure in a cave.

Cut to workaday life, which is considerably less antic. Kumiko (Pacific Rim's Rinko Kikuchi) is a uniformed OL (office lady) for an imperious boss at a midsize Tokyo company. He says she should be married by now — she's 29 — which is the same thing her mother insists when Kumiko takes her phone calls. As much as possible, the young woman avoids everyone except her pet rabbit, Bunzo, and the residents of Fargo.

Kumiko speaks so little, in either Japanese or English, that her character seems partly modeled on the deaf teenager the versatile Kikuchi played in Babel. The Zellners have even worked a deaf character into their fable.

The Japanese traveler also recalls the headstrong newcomer played by Eszter Balint in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise. Both are strangers in strange lands, and each has a moment when she impulsively dumps an item of clothing in the trash. That Jarmusch film and another one, Dead Man, are closer to the spirit of Kumiko than anything in the Coen brothers' filmography. (Werner Herzog fans may think as well of Stroszek, in which three German eccentrics head for the dark heart of Wisconsin.)

For the movie's first 45 minutes, Kumiko plots her quest. She steals a map of Minnesota from a library and embroiders a treasure map on a piece of fabric. But Kumiko has no hope of reaching Fargo until a corporate credit card falls into her hands. Then she lurches into action, sending Bunzo away — literally — before flying to Minneapolis.

A moment at the airport, showing an airplane in a swirling red mist of de-icing fluid, is unexpectedly lovely. The Zellners don't find much beauty in back-streets Tokyo, but in Minnesota they put the film's widescreen format to picturesque use. Kumiko's north woods visions include a psychedelic nighttime scene, illuminated by only a flashlight, and a new morning of transcendent sunshine.

A series of bus, taxi and police-car rides move Kumiko across a snowy landscape for which her little-red-riding-hood jacket is clearly inadequate. Several good-natured locals offer assistance, although they're as clueless as the naif they're trying to help. For some translation help, a small-town sheriff played by the director takes the Japanese woman to a Chinese restaurant.

Ultimately, though, this journey must conclude alone. And exactly how it ends will likely divide viewers. Is the story, and its heroine's fate, a fairy tale or a delusion? If the former, the movie is as sweet as a Disney-inspired anime. If the latter, Kumiko is deeply sad.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.