Directed by: David Zellner.
Written by: David Zellner and Nathan Zellner.
Starring: Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko), Nobuyuki Katsube (Sakagami), Shirley Venard (Older Woman), David Zellner (Policeman), Nathan Zellner (Robert), Kanako Higashi (Michi).
The Coen Brothers Fargo (1996), is one of the best films ever made – and more than any of the brothers other films, represents the portrait of what they call “Minnesota nice” – which runs through a lot of their work. Minnesota nice refers to the gap between how the people in Minnesota appear on the surface, and what they are underneath – which is just as greedy, selfish and violent as anyone else, even if it’s wrapped up in a lot of funny sounding “aw, shucks” and “Oh, gees”. Pretty much everyone in Fargo appears like a nice guy – and yet they’re almost all shits as well.
From another pair of filmmaking brothers – the Zellners – now comes Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which quite literally starts with the exact same shot as the Coens’ Fargo does – as the first shot of the movie is on a TV, playing an old VHS copy of Fargo, freeze framed on the opening title card announcing that “This is a True Story” – something the Coens’ eventually admitted they made up, because they thought it would sound better. Unlike Fargo however, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter really is based (however loosely) on a True Story – that of a lonely Japanese woman, who believes that opening title card in Fargo, and comes to America in the dead of winter in search of all that money Steve Buscemi buried next to a fence, alongside a highway in the Coens’ movie. It doesn’t go well for her.
Before Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) even gets to America however, the Zellners’ spend a lot of time with her in Japan – where her life isn’t going well anyway. She has got a dead end job, for a boss who is too lazy to fire her, although he does wonder why, at 29, she’s still working there. All the other women either get married and leave, or else advance in their careers – and Kumiko has no desire to do either. There are a series of phone calls with her mother – who is constantly wondering why she hasn’t gotten either a promotion or else engaged. A chance encounter with an old friend at least hints that at one point Kumiko may not have been this anti-social. A scene with her bunny – named Bunzo – is so sad, awkward and hilarious all at once, that the Coens’ themselves would have be proud of it.
From there, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter moves to the Minnesota/North Dakota of the Coen brothers movie – and has Kumiko meet up with a series of eccentric characters, who, on the surface at least, would fit in well in a Coen movie. But whereas the Coens like to expose their hypocrisy – the greed beneath the surface, the Zellners take a more genuine approach. The people she meets – many of whom are nice enough to stop by the side of the road and pick up a lonely, cold stranger – may be a little bit weird – but they are genuinely nice, and do try and help Kumiko. An old woman gives her a place to stay, instead of having to be outside in the cold, a cop tries to convince her that Fargo is just a movie, buys her a meal, and takes her to get a coat – and doesn’t expect anything in return. If Kumiko’s trip ends with inevitable tragedy, that isn’t because of these people who are unfeeling or unkind – but because Kumiko herself is too far gone to be saved.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is an odd movie to say the least. It moves at a slow pace, and if you don’t get on its weird wavelength, it’s likely going to feel much longer than its 105 minute runtime. Kikuchi delivers yet another brilliant, largely silent performance (she did the same thing in both Babel and The Brothers Bloom – once in drama, once in comedy) – here delivering a portrait of mental illness too far gone, too committed to her beliefs, and unwilling to hear he truth, to be saved. The film is also wonderfully shot – one of those rare movies that makes the cold palpable (something Fargo did as well).
Yet as odd as the films gets – and its gets really, really odd in the final minutes – it never loses it connection with its title character – who really does make the movie. She is an odd character to build a movie around, which is perhaps why it works so well. The film is ultimately about a woman who dooms herself – and yet we never lose sympathy for her. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but this movie does it.