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'Kumiko' a tale of mysticism and madness

Festival hit ‘Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter’ is the mystical story of a Japanese women looking for treasure in North Dakota

OF THE 2015 Best Actress Oscar nominees, two involved portrayals of women who try to kill themselves.

Another involved contemplated suicide, another a death wish (we'll not name names or films to avoid spoilers).

Certainly there is worthwhile drama in psychological anguish, but what ever happened to Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich?

This recent trend toward women as icons of instability (our "Blue Jasmine" period?) was very much on my mind as I watched "Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter," a rapturously reviewed movie widely described as sweet and enchanting.

Yet, at its core is what appears to be a portrait of mental illness. Depressed and isolated Japanese office worker Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) hates her job, spits in her boss' tea, dumps his dry cleaning in the trash and one day, on the point of being fired, steals his corporate card and heads to North Dakota, where she believes she'll find buried treasure.

Placed there by . . . Steve Buscemi. Kumiko has viewed a VHS copy of "Fargo," and in her mental state believes it to be a record of actual events. She believes she'll find the suitcase full of cash that Buscemi's character has stuffed in the snow outside Fargo, and makes her way there.

What follows is a strange road movie - Kumiko wandering the snowy Dakota plains, helped by a travelers' aid representative, a motorist and a cop (the movie's director, David Zellner). These gentle and funny vignettes lend the movie its reputation as a quirky, Coen-esque odyssey.

And the movie is lovely to look at. Its compositions make clever use of color and space, and Kumiko, in a crimson shawl on the snowy plains, is a striking figure.

She describes herself as an explorer, inspired by Spanish conquistadors. She's caught up in the romance of exploration, of buried treasure, but the photography also prompts us to remember that the Spanish were often met by a harsh continent indifferent to their presence, and that many died looking for mythical stores of gold.

So we worry about poor Kumiko. Borrowing an image from "Fargo," deluded dreamers like her tend to end up in life's woodchipper.

And she seems more sad than inspiring. She put me in mind of Melville's Bartleby the scrivener. And the movie reminded me not of the Coens but of David Lynch (certainly the music is "Elephant Man"-era Lynch), and its portrait of a woman who blurs movie fantasy and pathetic reality felt like "Mullholland Drive."

I'm not sure that the Zellners intend the movie to carry that kind of weight, or to be taken literally (the prologue suggests something mystical). But Kikuchi's performance pulls you into Kumiko's disturbed orbit so forcefully that the ending, though open to virtually any interpretation, may feel like a frozen downer.