[Note: This post contains very mild spoilers. Updated 4/23/15.]
The image that opens David and Nathan Zellner’s peculiar, hypnotic new feature, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is distorted and snowy, as though it were recorded on videotape that has since deteriorated. Even through the flurry of tracking errors, however, it's easy to discern the white, all-caps letters on a black background: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY”. Many cinephiles will immediately identify this famous line as the one that introduced Joel and Ethan Coen’s bloody 1996 crime drama cum black comedy Fargo. In Kumiko, a water-damaged VHS copy of the Coens’ film has become an obsession for the eponymous woman (Rinko Kikuchi), a 29-year-old administrative assistant living in Tokyo. Using an antiquated VCR, she scrutinizes every frame of Fargo with the rigor of a forensic analyst. Which raises a question: Does the title card represent Kumiko’s viewpoint, as she crouches in her dark apartment, studying the tape for the hundredth time? Or are the Zellners, like the Coens, tweaking the viewer by suggesting that Kumiko is itself a true story, despite its unmistakable aura of fantasy? The answer is likely the same one Kumiko gives when asked whether she is an exchange student or a tourist: “Yes”.
Poor Kumiko shuffles morosely through her life as though deep in a trance. The same dead-eyed slackness attends her as she sits idly at her desk, prepares tea for her boss, and eats her instant noodle meals. Her fellow “Office Girls” are five or more years her junior, and while they are engrossed with beauty and fashion, Kumiko doesn’t seem to have any interests beyond her dwarf rabbit Bunzo and the aforementioned VHS tape. By day she picks at the holes in her stockings and stares glumly as the world goes by. At night she watches Fargo, over and over and over. Early in the film, she is glimpsed gleaning the cassette from a secret cache in a sea cave, but little is revealed about what led her to such a location, or who placed the tape there and for what purpose. What matters is that Kumiko believes with frightening desperation in the cassette’s significance and in the reality of the events depicted in Fargo.
Specifically, she has faith that a close reading of the film will reveal the location of the $920,000 in ransom money that bungling kidnapper Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buries in the snow near a barbed wire fence. Kumiko pauses the film and traces the spacing between the fence posts, eventually transferring the image via embroidery onto a swatch of fabric. In her mind, that fictional suitcase of bundled bills is a lost New World treasure, and she is like a Spanish conquistador who is fated to unearth and seize it. Setting aside the fictional nature of the film, Kumiko never grapples with the fact that tens of millions of people have seen Fargo, and presumably are therefore also aware of the money. No matter. She insists that the concealed cash is both her discovery and her destiny.
When her boss hands her a corporate credit card to purchase an anniversary gift for his wife, the temptation is too much for Kumiko to resist. Before anyone suspects that something is amiss, she boards a plane bound for the United States, and is soon stepping off the jetway into the Minneapolis airport, a stranger and a strange land. She has only a rudimentary grasp of the English language, no money beyond the pilfered credit card, and a childlike guilelessness that seems more than mere cultural misunderstanding. Mostly she just points at a single-page map of Minnesota and declares her destination: “Fargo”. This tactic eventually takes her remarkably far. Never mind that Carl actually buried the ransom somewhere between Minneapolis and Brainerd in the film. The word is as much a mystical invocation as a place name, as the Coens themselves recognized. Very little of Fargo’s action takes place in the titular North Dakota city. Rather, it represents a telltale verbal blood spatter, the locale where sad sack Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) exchanged a car for the services of criminals, and thereby sealed his damnation.
The natural query posed by Kumiko is whether a viewer can understand and appreciate the film without having seen Fargo. The answer is a restrained “Yes”. Certainly, there are several aspects of the former film which hinge on familiarity with the latter, apart from the opening text. The Minnesotans that Kumiko encounters during her quest are mostly cast from the same “Aw Geez” mold as those that populate the Coens’ feature: decent, diligent folks who take a good-natured interest in strangers. (One can even forgive their provincial cluelessness about Japan, or Asia in general.) In a nod to Fargo’s dogged Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), David Zellner portrays a gentle-hearted county sheriff’s deputy who takes pity on the plainly lost Kumiko and goes above and beyond his duty to aid her. (“I want to help you,” he explains, “I’m just trying to figure out how.”) Kumiko’s Minnesota locales unsurprisingly recall those depicted in the Coens’ film, particularly the rural landscape of lonely highways swathed in windblown snow. Other minor echoes abound, some as subtle as Kumiko’s Lundegaard-esque tendency to turn heel and run when situations go pear-shaped, including one occasion in which she clambers out a window.
However, beyond connecting Fargo’s slightly exaggerated upper midwestern setting to the same territory that is navigated by Kumiko, most of these links function merely as passing winks to Coen aficionados. Kumiko is, in fact, a very different sort of film than Fargo. The Coens, as is their wont, craft a tale that is an homage to—and simultaneously a subversion of—crime and detective fiction tropes, ultimately in the service of expansive observations about the absurdity of human behavior. The Zellners, meanwhile, stage Kumiko as a grim, anxious Hero’s Journey, albeit one in which the quest is delusional nonsense. It’s not unlike The Fisher King in this respect, but there the resemblance ends. In Terry Gilliam’s film, mentally troubled Holy Grail seeker Parry pulls disgraced radio shock jock Jack into his Arthurian fantasy, and both men ultimately find something akin to redemption in the quest, its unreality notwithstanding. Kumiko, meanwhile, trudges towards her make-believe treasure in solitude. Good Samaritans come and go during the journey, but no one truly understands her endeavors. The mission is hers alone to endure, and the prize hers alone to claim. As she declares defiantly to her scolding, grandchild-hungry mother over the phone, she is doing “very, very important work”.
At the surface level, Kumiko works as an unhurried yet nerve-wracking adventure tale in which the heroine’s quest perpetually stands upon the edge of a knife, to borrow Tolkien’s memorable phrasing. There is an unbearable tension inherent in watching Kumiko plod forward through the wintery prairie landscape. She is continuously and perilously exposed, both physically—she is woefully underdressed for the bone-cracking Minnesota wind—and in the sense that as an oddly naïve outsider, she makes easy prey for hucksters and predators. (There don't seem to be many of these creatures in Minnesota, but everyone it the state surely isn't a nice, friendly Lutheran.) As in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, monetary shortfalls become a fiendish source of sour-gut apprehension. It’s easy to share Kumiko’s icy plunge into panic when a hotel clerk observes that her stolen credit card has been declined, or when a taxi drivers points expectantly at a meter displaying a sum she cannot possibly pay.
Lurking at the periphery of every scene, however, is the nagging awareness that Kumiko has no hope of locating a treasure that does not exist. Accordingly, the empathy that her successes and misfortunes engender in the viewer always carries an unpleasant bitterness, a growing sensation that Something Bad is going to happen when Kumiko’s fantasy runs headlong into reality. This mutates the film into a sort of slow-motion horror story, which is enhanced by the Zellners’ and cinematographer Sean Porter’s flair for bestowing the most banal midwestern locations with an uncanny atmosphere that feels a bit J-horror in character. The film’s soundtrack by indie electronica group the Octopus Project also contributes to this unsettling aura. Much of the group’s work possesses a plastic, bubbly quality, but in Kumiko they veer towards a more melancholy sound, with drones, squeals, and wails providing a dose of otherworldliness.
It’s challenging to shake the impression the one of the film’s chief aims is to make the viewer exceedingly uncomfortable, not only with the immediate events shown on screen, but with the entire scenario. Kumiko is, at bottom, the story of a woman who gives up her life for a lie. If the Coens are philosophers, the Zellners here assume the role of psychologists, implicitly inquiring: “Do these events upset you? And, if so, why do you think that is?” Kumiko herself functions as a Rorschach test, if only because the film provides few glimpses of her interior life beyond her Fargo-focused monomania. She makes decisions impulsively, exhibits no ability to make long-term plans, and seems to lack an adult’s understanding of the world. (Reproaching her for tearing the Minnesota map from an atlas in a Tokyo library, a security guard wonders, “Why didn’t you just get it off the Internet?”) Is she mildly autistic? Or perhaps mentally ill? Or just a fuck-up?
Although it’s easy to attribute Kumiko’s tribulations to her own foolishness, or to simply conclude that she must be deeply disturbed, the film’s stance towards its heroine is more ambiguous, even sympathetic. In the early Tokyo scenes, the Zellners take pains to show how unappealing the prospect of a “normal” life might be for a young Japanese woman. The pressures to conform to a mainstream, feminine, heteronormative existence surround Kumiko, like a flock of pestering birds. Her boss chides her for her dour demeanor (i.e., not smiling enough), before bluntly asking if she is a lesbian. The other Office Girls are fixated on their gossip and primping, and ultimately on finding husbands. Her own mother nags Kumiko about her non-existent love life, reminding her that time is running out to land a man, drop out of the workforce, and start siring children. Reluctantly meeting up with an old schoolmate, Kumiko stares into the eyes of the woman’s toddler son and sees only something alien and frightening. Given this assault of repellent expectations, escape into a fantasy where she is a fearless explorer of distant lands seems like a preferable alternative.
One can envision a lesser film that holds up Kumiko as an admirable individual and proffers a saccharine, vacuous message about following one’s dreams at all costs. The Zellners’ film strives for something far more ambitious and complex than a paean to quirky individuality. By portraying their protagonist as an erratic, dyspeptic figure and her goal as a ludicrous misapprehension, the filmmakers reframe the story as a sobering moral conundrum. Is it right for a person to put themselves in peril for the sake of a falsehood that they believe to be true? And, perhaps more significantly, what are the obligations of others with respect to that person? Although Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter doesn’t answer these questions, it achieves something singular simply by posing them. That it also happens to be a visually arresting and narratively absorbing film makes it all the more remarkable.