“This is a true story.”
These are the first words seen onscreen in Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo, the masterful, funny dark comedy that earned the Coens their first Oscar nominations. The story wasn't true, of course, but the Coens – for the sake of their own amusement, and for the sake of adding a certain dramatic effect to the film – made the claim and waited to see how long it would take for someone to dispute it. Even if the film had been based on a true story, there's no doubt that the film wouldn't have been an exact recreation of the events it depicts. Almost all movies take a great deal of artistic license in recreating real-life situations.
Alas, legend has it that one woman didn't see it that way. Takako Konishi was a Japanese office worker who left Tokyo and traveled to Minnesota (and eventually North Dakota). The story goes that she was looking for the treasure buried by Steve Buscemi's character in Fargo, and that she froze to death trying to find it. Later, it was revealed that the whole Fargo story was the result of a misunderstanding with a police officer, and that Takako had actually come to Minnesota because she was attempting to combat her depression (it seems that she and a lover had once spent some happy time there). Her death was officially ruled a suicide, suggesting that she had eventually succumbed to her depression. Still, the urban legend of the woman looking for the money from Fargo lived on.
Now we have David Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which basically tells the popular, Fargo-centric version of Takako's tale and adds its own new elements into the mix. It's a decent film, but it's even more compelling as a new part of this northwestern stew that blurs the line between reality and fiction. It's become a strange American folk tale of sorts, with different interpretations and different versions being offered up over time. It's telling that Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox can be found in the background of every version. “You know, Babe used to be anatomically correct,” one character in Kumiko says, “But then some drunk took his privates off with a shotgun.” Myths are altered. Whatever the truth of this myth, there's a very real dead body at the center of it.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, Pacific Rim) is a quiet, introverted 29-year-old office lady. She dislikes her job, has no romantic relationships, has no real friends and has no real idea of what she wants for her future. Mostly, she obsesses over the beaten-up VHS copy of Fargo that she found buried in a cave. Perhaps the fact that it was buried in a cave made it feel like treasure. Perhaps the fact that the picture quality is terrible makes it seem like a secret. Whatever the case, she becomes convinced that the treasure featured in the film is real, and heads to North Dakota to find it.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has its own tone and artistic sensibility, but portions of it are certainly informed by the films of The Coen Brothers. The puzzling encounters with North Dakota locals are extremely Coen-esque, particularly a funny dialogue scene with an elderly book enthusiast: “Are you Japanese? Have you read Shogun? It's about Japan.” As Kumiko gets closer to her final destination, the film begins to look increasingly like Fargo, as certain shots deliberately recall scenes from that film. There's another scene involving a rabbit (Bunzo the Rabbit, turning in a very convincing performance) that feels like a companion to a scene involving a cat in the Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis. We hear brief snippets of Carter Burwell's unforgettable Fargo theme, and the score by The Octopus Project often seems to be right on the verge of segueing into that theme.
Zellner (who also plays a key supporting role - a friendly but clueless cop who makes a vain attempt to help Kumiko) doesn't attempt to offer an explanation for why Kumiko does what she does. Is she depressed? Is she mentally ill? Is she really just dumb enough to confuse a movie with reality? It's less about why a particular thing happened and more an acknowledgement of the fact that these things happen. Like Fargo, it's not a true story, but there's plenty of truth to be found in the story. The film doesn't have a lot to say, but it does give you a lot to think about. The closing sequence – in which the film doubles down on both its quiet sadness and its visual beauty – is a treasure worth seeking.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 2015