Based on a bizarre urban legend that found a movie-obsessed Japanese woman travelling to Minnesota in search of the fictional briefcase full of money from the movie Fargo, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter builds on the Coen Brothers classic while weaving its own deeply dark and disturbingly odd tale.
The Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan) have made some incredible movies (Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, and too many others to name) which skilfully cherry-pick from different genres. And while Fargo famously features a title card stating “This is a true story”, it’s the actual true story of Takako Konishi that inspired The Zellner Brothers (director David and co-writer Nathan) to create Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
It’s a visually bold yet narratively sparse film that directly references Fargo and seems to exist in the same quirky cinematic universe as the Coens’ work. There’s overly polite police, a blistering midwest winter, and a similar score that’s not too derivative and brings in Japanese influences. While that premise may sound overly meta or threaten to become too twee or self-referential, the Zellners show remarkable restraint in a movie that’s ultimately empathetic towards its wounded protagonist.
Rinko Kikuchi stars as Kumiko, a 29-year-old Tokyo-based office worker. She’s clearly depressed and experiencing deep dysphoria, stumbling through her waking life with little human contact or real purpose. During the surreal opening Kumiko finds a hidden VHS copy of Fargo in a remote cave and she and the film treat it reverentially like a treasured totum. Her obsession grows as she watches the film nightly and takes detailed notes, eventually coming to believe that the money hidden in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s character is real and she needs to travel to Fargo, North Dakota to find it.
With her boss pressuring her to resign and make way for younger workers, her mother hounding her to either find a man or come home, and no real friends to speak of, Kumiko starts off towards America with a stolen company credit card. The only goodbye she has to say is to her rabbit Bunzo in a hilarious/sad scene (the kind that Todd Solondz excels at) that shows Kumiko’s desperation and loneliness, but stops just short of actually making fun of her.
Shot on location in Tokyo and Minnesota, the movie takes on new life once Kumiko travels across the Pacific, although those with foreknowledge of the story on which it’s based will feel a mounting sense of dread. Kumiko is a sort of naive Red Riding Hood, under dressed for the brutal winter in only a red hoodie. In her mind she’s a treasure hunter looking to claim untapped riches, but she’s woefully under prepared her journey quickly goes awry. The language barrier further hinders her journey, although a kindly old woman and a plucky cop do their best to help her along the way.
The compositions that Zellner captures are remarkably gorgeous and provide much to look at in a film that’s often ponderous and plodding. The camera is always carefully positioned and little details combine to make you truly feel Kumiko’s plight as she trudges on. There’s some comedy of the blackest sort to leaven moments (like when Kumiko fashions a winter jacket out of a motel comforter, or the policeman takes the Japanese Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant to get translation), although there’s an increasing sense of Kumiko’s options dwindling as the movie nears its end point. It’s hard to discuss what happens next without spoiling the ending, although the climax does provide some bookending surrealism that matches the opening.
Much as Fargo detailed the gut-wrenching downfall of many its venal and avaricious characters (with Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson as a beacon of decency), Kumiko the Treasure Hunter shows what the end result of a dangerous obsession can be. It holds the power and allure of stories in awe, but is a warning call to not take them too seriously. It’s also a heartbreaking portrait of a damaged person that allows some light in at times to show how bad the darkness can get. Fun for the whole family!
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2015)
Director: David Zellner (co-writer) Nathan Zellner
Runtime: 105 minutes