At the beginning of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo a title card claims that the story you are about to witness is true, and that it happened in Minnesota in 1987. It isn’t true, of course, but that doesn’t stop Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a depressed office worker from Tokyo, from believing that it is when she finds an old VHS tape of the film. In this bittersweet tragedy by David Zellner, co-written with his brother Nathan, the troubled Kumiko travels from Japan to the Minnesota/North Dakota border in order to search for the ill-gotten cash stashed near a road and fence by Steve Buscemi’s Fargo character, and finds help and hindrance along the way. The film splits its time equally between Japan (first half) and America, contrasting the concrete of Tokyo with the beautiful but harsh wintry landscape of north-western Minnesota.
Ironically Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is itself based loosely on a real life tale, or at least the Zellners use a real life rumour as a launching point. Kikuchi’s character is a fictional version of Takako Konishi, a Tokyo native who was found dead in a Minnesota field in November 2001. Local news reports suggested that Konishi believed the story of Fargo, and had travelled to America with the intention of finding the spoils left unclaimed at the end of the film, though a 2003 short by Paul Berczeller entitled This Is A True Story debukned the myth. However the Zellners liked the rumour enough for it to serve as a basis for their own story.
Shortly after the character is introduced it becomes apparent that Kumiko’s mental state is fragile; it looks as if she is suffering from depression. As if to highlight that she is somehow ‘different’ to other citizens of Tokyo an early shot sees her walking through a train station throng in a red hooded top, standing out among the sea of dark suits, while the theme of being alienated in the big city dominates the first half and the character is constantly isolated by different framing devices. She lives alone with a rabbit for company and appears to be enduring an unhappy time of life: there are no friends, by the looks of things, she hates her boss and toys with the idea of spitting in his tea, anxiety causes her to react surprisingly when an old acquaintance arranges lunch, she does not mix with her colleagues and is harangued over the phone by her mother for not having a boyfriend. None of the characters in Kumiko’s life are awful, save perhaps her mother, but they all seem to lack understanding. Perhaps the inclusion of a lone, friendly man working in a dry cleaning store is a preemptive move to avoid accusations that Japanese people are painted in a negative light in this film, but he is a minor character and Kumiko doesn’t take much notice of him anyway.
She begins to obsess over key scenes in Fargo, buying a DVD copy when her VHS tape gets worn out. She traces a picture over the screen to help her locate the exact whereabouts of the hidden money, and tries to steal an atlas from a local library; an unconventional way of getting a map, but it works. Eventually Kumiko pinches her boss’s credit card and travels to the US, which is markedly different to her home city. The landscape is the exact opposite, as stated earlier, but so are the people: warm, friendly, helpful, perhaps overly so, and they seemingly mistake her mental state for shyness, a product of the language barrier. Kumiko arrives in America completely under-dressed, wearing little more than her hoodie and a pair of jeans, and is woefully unprepared for the cold that she meets. Trusting strangers – evangelical travel guides, an old lady, a motel owner, a Deputy Sheriff, a taxi driver – help her along, providing transport, food and clothing, but she is motivated to get away from all of them for a number of different reasons.
The second half of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter brings to mind Alexander Payne’s recent road trip film Nebraska; it’s hard not to make the unlikely connection between the mentally-troubled Japanese woman wandering along the side of the road and the flustered, confused character played by Bruce Dern, who did the same in Payne’s film. Both are in search of a fortune that doesn’t exist, neither will be swayed when people try to set the record straight, while it’s interesting to note that Payne is a co-producer here.
Like Nebraska, Zellner’s semi-road movie has occasional moments of humour to lighten the mood. The director himself plays Deputy Caldwell, a law enforcement agent who tries to help Kumiko, with a certain innocent comic charm: he mistakenly believes that a Chinese restaurant owner will be able to translate English to Japanese, which is the kind of thing Minnesotans will presumably hate to see given that years have been spent trying to dispel certain suggestions about collective intelligence made by the Coens and other TV writers for the purposes of a few laughs. There is also a darkly comic tone at times, perhaps best summed up by a symbolism-heavy scene in which Kumiko is attacked by a wild black dog, who wants nothing more than her DVD copy of Fargo. However the overwhelming mood is one of sadness, of impending tragedy, and as the film reaches its denouement the loneliness of the character is emphasised by a series of strikingly-minimal images by DP Sean Porter, which gradually become more and more abstract. In Minnesota we often see Kumiko walking through fields alone, silhouetted against the snow, her long blanket fashioned from a duvet and bringing to mind traditional Japanese costume. It is a strange sight.
Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is a moving, intriguing and somewhat eccentric film, and despite being low on dialogue the main character is brought to life by Kikuchi’s impressive physical performance, the actress perfectly communicating the signs of mental stress and illness even though the script itself is unspecific. Tokyo and Minnesota serve as fascinating contrasting backdrops for this slow and visually-arresting film, the soundtrack by The Octopus Project cleverly references Carter Burwell’s score in the Coen Brothers’ film, while I should also mention the impeccable sound design: microphones pick up the turning of pages and other minor noises to create a dense sonic texture that is a pleasure to hear.
Directed by: David Zellner.
Written by: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner.
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Yumiko Hioki.
Cinematography: Sean Porter.
Editing: Melba Jodorowsky.
Music: The Octopus Project.
Running Time: 104 minutes.