Distorted and out of focus, “this is a true story” and the rest of the accompanying opening title card from Fargo encompasses the screen, barely readable but instantly recognisable to aficionados of the Coen Brothers’ modern classic. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the latest film from SXSW favourites the Zellner Brothers, plays with the idea of the truth in fiction in ways both playful and poignant. The plot of the film itself is an appropriation of an urban legend, which alleged that a Japanese woman believed that Fargo‘s parodic title card was truthful and that this belief led her to venure to Minnesota in search of the buried cash from that film, where she froze to death. Rather than flog this concept for all that it’s worth, the Zellners instead supplant it with an impressive character study that waivers between the amusing and the tragic, whilst subverting expectations by setting half of the film in Tokyo.
As expected considering the urban legend’s structure, the story follows Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese woman in her late twenties who works as an ‘office girl’, is alone save for her rabbit Bunzo and who spends her free time entranced by a scene in the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo, which she watches on repeat on a VHS tape. A sudden shift from VHS to DVD, in an amusing commentary on home video interaction and imagination through imperfect imagery, along with the pressures of work and family hitting an apex, causes Kumiko to leave for America on the spur of the moment, in search of her ‘treasure’. The Zellners are clever in playing with an audience’s knowledge of the urban legend. Whilst diverting from it at points to deliver character, it manages to tie in the role of a deputy (David Zellner himself) who assists her, a reference to the deputy who allegedly got the urban legend started. It’s with this play with fact and fiction that makes Kumiko even more intrinsically linked to the “this is a true story” label than Fargo.
In an often quiet and meditative style, the film uses visual motifs to great and subtle effect. The opening sequence, in which Kumiko uses her handsewn map to retrieve the VHS tape of Fargo from a cave, could have been merely a comedic scene ridiculing Kumiko for thinking that this tape is treasure or accusing her of some arrested development. Instead, this minature adventure, coupled with a shot of her well-thumbed notebook of scrawled musings, creates in our minds a cycle of escapism; the knowledge that she has hidden this tape and has, presumably, doubled back to ‘discover’ it time and time again provides a wealth of character development in such a short amount of time. Subtle motifs alone, though, aren’t what make Kumiko such a compelling figure, it’s also got a lot to do with a stellar performance from Rinko Kikuchi, who showcases an impressive range here, able to make you laugh and break your heart in the space of a few minutes.
The usage of music in the film, with an original score from The Octopus Project, is likewise impressive, only relenting and dipping into the Fargo score later in the film. Even that, though, has an impact. The score from the Coens’ film haunting Kumiko like a spectre in her hotel room isn’t merely a callback device – like many elements of the film it has major thematic underpinnings. The fact that the score haunts her here – and not the exact sound or music from the scene of the buried treasure – acts to once more confirm her knowledge that it is a fictional film, not at all truth, thus making the bittersweet oh so much more bitter. The credits song of the film, “Yamasuki” by the Yamasuki Singers, is also of major thematic importance.1 A French band creating a fad out of an obsession with Japanese culture, its usage here shows the Zellners are fully aware of how they are approaching Japan and the depiction of cultural divisions. Whilst naturally the cultural divide provides some scenes of humor, it also makes allows the film to make a statement about cultural appropriation through art, specifically also in its mention of Shogun.
Playing with metatextuality is one way to get my attention in a film, especially if done well. Here the Zellners deftly incorporate the motives of Don Quixote 2, the idea of the American Western – Kumiko wearing a quilt like she’s The Man with No Name – whilst also dealing with the way each of us engage with objects of popular culture and art.3 As mentioned above, when the lonely widow offers Kumiko Shogun as a means of engaging with her, we see a lack of comprehension of the power of artistic texts. Kumiko herself is entranced by Fargo, but not the entire film, just one scene and one element. She diagrams it, memorises distances and images. Her exercise of concentration is embelmatic of pure adoration of any text – an obsessive focus that results in highly personal interpretations and readings. There’s something about art that clicks on a subjective level which Kumiko is able to capture in a way rarely seen in cinema. She calls it “her treasure” because it is – it is her personal response to a creative work and a portal into a world she wishes was real and only half-convinces herself that it is.
Perhaps seeing the names Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor in the producing credits in the opening of the film placed a germ of comparison in my mind that only blossomed when Kumiko reaches America, that being that the film is, in some ways, quite similar to Payne’s recent Nebraska. Both films explore a journey through a state, across empty roads and containing interactions with well-meaning and amusing characters. Both films also have the same theoretical crisis of narrative, that being what to do in the final act of a story that hangs on a seemingly fruitless search for life-changing riches. Such a plotline, in its very construction, has issues with regards to narrative expectation, something Nebraska near-miraculously avoided with a very clever final five minutes. Kumiko doesn’t quite pull a cat out of the bag like Payne, though, instead letting us sit with our expectations, to varying deals of satisaction. That’s not to say the film’s end doesn’t work, just that it seems to veer away from the wonder of the previous hour and a half as the story loses thematic focus in place of a plot point. However, I was impressed with the final sequence on the whole, the film stuck to its guns and didn’t play with pleasantry for the sake of a happy ending.
For a film about self-delusion, Kumiko feels emotionally real. Engaging both conceptually and through its characters, it’s a film that I know will continue to grow on me over time; the more I watch it I may too find myself planted in front of a television, circling the posts in the snow on screen, or perhaps sitting further back, like Bunzo the rabbit, letting the images wash over me. Kumiko is a rare treasure of a film, seemingly divisive yet so personally rewarding if you can connect with it.
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