Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo is a film close to the psyche—if not close to the heart—of anyone living in the upper Midwest. It is the closest many Americans get to Minnesota, perpetuating the brand of long flat vowels and unassuming 1950s niceties that are the hallmark of the region to outsiders. Fans of the Coens may also remember the controversy surrounding this movie’s tongue-in-cheek introduction—a black screen with white text reading “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.” In 2001, a Japanese office worker named Takako Konishi was found frozen to death in a field in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, reportedly because she came in search of the money buried on a northern Minnesota roadside by Carl Showalter, Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo.
Director: David Zellner
Producers: Andrew Banks, Jim Burke, Cameron Lamb, Chris Ohlson, Alexander Payne, Nathan Zellner
Writers: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Cinematographer: Sean Porter
Editor: Melba Jodorowsky
Music: The Octopus Project
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Noboyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Premiere: January 20, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 18, 2015
US Distributor: Amplify
This story exploded to the scale of urban legend, particularly in the film community, bolstered by the notion that a beloved indie treasure like Fargo could be so impactful it could bring someone halfway across the world in search of imaginary treasure. Whether or not it was true, the story percolated its way through message boards until it made it to two brothers in Texas who soon became obsessed. The story isn't true, as it turns out—it was disproven in Paul Berczeller’s 2003 documentary This Is a True Story, which puts it all down to a misunderstanding with a small town police officer. While indeed Takako Konishi was found frozen to death in Detroit Lakes, she almost certainly went out there with the intent of killing herself, not in search of some fabled treasure.
But that doesn't matter much to Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, a film that takes as its basis the urban legend surrounding her death. This film, made by those Texan Zellner brothers, opens the same way as Fargo, with that infamous warning, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY,” this time pixelated and distorted, full of video artifacts from a worn out VHS tape. This tale is just as fictional as Fargo, but like its intro, it's more surreal and distorted, like a forgotten moment captured on VHS.
Kumiko, played enigmatically by Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi, is an “office girl” for a Tokyo businessman, dissatisfied with her stagnant work life and the constant pressure from her overbearing mother to either get married or move back in with her parents. She daydreams and fantasizes about finding buried treasure and hidden messages. In a vision or dream early in the film she follows a treasure map along a tropical beach to find, carefully wrapped in burlap, a VHS tape buried in the sand. This tape is of course Fargo, which she watches obsessively, searching for the hidden meaning and piecing together her own treasure map. "I am like a Spanish conquistador," she explains in an attempt to contextualize her bizarre behavior.
In dreams and visions, and in her eventual journey to Minnesota, Kumiko is always dressed in a red sweatshirt that seems almost too iconic to be a real item of clothing. Like Little Red Riding Hood, her diminutive figure is photographed with wide-angle lenses against the expansive flatness of the plains, giving the whole film a dreamy, otherworldly aesthetic. Even the gritty reality of winter in northern Minnesota (which leads Kumiko to fashion a coat out of a comforter with a hole cut through it) is ephemeral, a far cry from the soul-crushing winter that led Jerry Lundegaard to cuss out the ice on his windshield and then dejectedly go back to scraping it. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter's Minnesota winter is more distant and sinister, as if it is being experienced in the delirious moments between hypothermia and exposure.
Her wanderings through Minnesota are even more surreal, as she stares doe-eyed at the variety of friendly Minnesotans who try to help her by speaking slowly in English, a language that she knows only a smattering of. Among these helpful strangers are both writers—Nathan Zellner plays Robert, an unlicensed Minnesota travel guide who greets tourists at the grand piano in MSP's baggage claim; and David Zellner plays the Bismarck, ND policeman who tries to explain to Kumiko that Fargo is just a movie. Their presence among the alienating yet friendly strangers who float in and out of Kumiko's wanderings makes sense, as it is their obsession with this legend that fueled the strange provenance of this film.
As the film reaches its bizarre finale, the emotional weight of the deadening upper Midwest winter comes to the fore. Not since Werner Herzog's Stroszek (1977) has any film captured the loneliness and isolation of a northern winter; maybe it takes a stranger (Bruno, Stroszek's protagonist, comes from Germany to rural Wisconsin) to truly grasp that wintry feeling of insignificance. One of Kumiko the Treasure Hunter's final shots—Kumiko riding on a ski lift alone—seems to come directly from Stroszek, a film that ends (spoiler alert) with Bruno committing suicide on a ski lift. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is less depressing and more dreamy, with that oppressive winter feeling more like a malaise than a reason for suicide, but the lonely bite is still there. As a kind old woman tells Kumiko, “Solitude? That's just fancy loneliness.”
The project of this film remains somewhat obscure: is this a film or a performance art piece? Is its origin, based on a fake story based on a true story based on a fake story, some sort of postmodern statement about the decay of authenticity? (It's reminiscent of another great Coen line, "I couldn't swear to every detail but it's certainly true that it is a story.") Whatever this film's purpose, this new team of brothers has burst onto the scene with a film that is at once beautiful and dismal, and always mysterious.