Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘Fargo’ was one of the best films of 1990s. The FX series ‘Fargo’ was easily the best new television show of 2014. And now ‘Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter’, the movie about the movie ‘Fargo’ is one of the best films of 2015.
First, let me tell you the story of Takako Konishi. Wikipedia informs that she was a 28-year-old office worker at a travel agency from Japan who was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota in 2001. The media stated that she died trying to locate the missing money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character from the film ‘Fargo’ because of the “This is based on a true story” opening title card. An investigation, however, revealed that Konishi had been depressed after losing her job, and had come to Minneapolis because it was a place she had previously met her lover, a married American businessman. Konishi’s suicide was more likely related to the affair and not the briefcase full of cash.
The mystery had been solved, but independent filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner were fascinated with the urban legend surrounding her death and opted to reimagine this astounding story as an epic journey. David and Nathan co-wrote the script, and David directed the picture.
I didn’t know the story of Takoko Konishi prior to seeing the film. There wasn’t an opening title card explaining the real-life events that transpired. I didn’t know what to expect going in but certainly not an experience this breathtaking. Intense. Beautiful. Sad. Haunting.
The bleak tone is set from the opening frame – we see Kumiko (Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi) plodding along the waterfront in a red hoodie. Her explorative inclination leads her into a dark cave where she finds a VHS tape of the movie ‘Fargo’ in a fissure. It might have been my copy she stumbled upon.
She pops the VHS tape into her VCR and the tracking is off the charts but she is able to barely make out the opening title card, which indicates the film was based on a true story. As far as I know, none of it was true. But, Kumiko doesn’t know that. She sketches a map outlining the wired fences, the distance between posts, the exact location of the briefcase, and it is littered with numerical values that probably don’t mean anything. To say this becomes her obsession is an understatement.
Kumiko’s biggest challenge at work appears to be a decision about whether or not she should spit in her boss’ morning tea. She bumps into an old friend on the street and is completely unable to maintain a conversation. Phone conversations with her mother are limited to binary yes/no responses. The only thing she seems to demonstrate any affection for is her pet rabbit. And though a lot of this had me laughing, there is unquestionably sadness to it all.
Rinko Kikuchi is excellent. This isn’t an over-the-top freak show performance. This is a template example of minimalist self-containment; her intense, wary glare speaks volumes. You can barely hear her speak, especially when the Octopus Project’s somber score kicks in. She doesn’t speak so much as whisper. A friend of mine commented on my Letterboxd noting this as a fault of the film. I think it is intentional. What she says isn’t as important as what she is feeling, and we are able to sense what she is thinking behind those brooding eyes. Kumiko might be dispirited. She might be lonely. But, a connection to another person is something she is unlikely to experience.
And so she goes on this quest where she is able to completely shut out all of the people she had been forced to contend with previously. “I am like a Spanish Conquistador. Recently, I’ve learned of untold riches deep in the Americas.”
From the moment she arrives in Minnesota, things go horribly wrong. The Greyhound bus breaks down and rather than choosing to wait with the other passengers for the next bus to arrive, she wanders off on foot along the side of a highway in whiteout conditions. Credit cinematographer Sean Porter for creating such a foreboding landscape – one that is as threatening and estranged to us as it is to Kumiko.
Every person she encounters in Minnesota is wonderful. They genuinely want to help her. They give her shelter, food, and clothes. When she explains her reason for wanting to visit Fargo, no one laughs at her. They benignantly try to talk her out of it. They try to explain the difference between a documentary and a feature film. Nothing doing. This makes her even more tenacious and as a result she becomes more closed-in. But the film doesn’t judge her either. Her gaze locked into the ground, she sees what eludes us. The filmmakers extend warmth and empathy towards their characters.
The Zellner’s unclassifiable film can be seen could very well be an allegory on the solitariness of film fandom, especially home viewing which is devoid of the communal experience one derives from being in a movie theater with a crowded audience. Fact? Fiction? Which is the more interesting of the two?
I should note that some members in the audience I saw it with were vocal about their dismissal of the ending, which I won’t spoil for you other than to say I don’t think it’s meant to be taken at face value. It is a Coen Brothers ending. QED.