You may recall that, toward the end of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, Carl (Steve Buscemi) buries a suitcase of ransom money in the snow near a fence post on a remote road. He’s the only one who knows where it is, and, as things work out, he’s never able to retrieve it. It must still be there … within the world of the movie, at least.
But the Coens opened the film with the following note: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” This has since been revealed as an exaggeration, if not a pure untruth. The film may have drawn on various real events — of course, what film doesn’t? — but the statement was one of the Coens’ little jokes.
If only 29-year-old Tokyo office worker Kumiko had gotten the joke. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, who was Oscar-nominated a few years back for Babel) has followed a treasure map of unknown provenance and discovered a VHS copy of Fargo carefully hidden in a cave. She takes the opening statement literally and becomes convinced that, by carefully analyzing the scene with the suitcase, she can identify the exact location and dig up Carl’s fortune.
If it’s not already clear, Kumiko is either insanely naive or insanely insane. She apparently takes the words “true” and “exactly” to mean that Fargo isn’t even a re-creation but is rather a record of the events as they happened.
Still, it’s easy to understand why Kumiko may be living in a fantasy world: She hates her demeaning job; she has no real friends or future; and all her mother cares about is when Kumiko’s going to find a husband and settle down. The closest she has to human contact is Bunzo, with whom she shares her tiny apartment; and that’s not so close, what with Bunzo being a bunny rabbit and not very talkative.
Her only chance at freedom and happiness is buried somewhere in Minnesota, so she steals a company credit card and flies to America to find her treasure. She brings nothing but the contents of her pocketbook, which does not include much by way of cash. Worse yet, she doesn’t know more than a few words of English, just enough for her to ask everyone she meets how to get to Fargo.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has similarities to Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s 1996 Cold Fever, about a Japanese businessman trying to reach the remote spot in Iceland where his parents died seven years earlier. (Not that it means anything, but, by coincidence, Cold Fever and Fargo opened here only a few weeks apart.) Still, the lead character in that film was at worst naive. Kumiko, on the other hand, almost always makes the worst possible choices.
Kumiko is the work of the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, who, like the Coens, are credited separately or together for writing, directing, and producing. In terms of tone, Kumiko is dry comedy, almost totally deadpan, more like Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki than the Coens. They walk a very fine line between sympathizing with Kumiko and viewing her as the butt of the jokes. Kikuchi makes us care about her while not downplaying her oddness and petulance. Her devotion to her ridiculous quest may be comic, but there’s a parallel thread of immanent tragedy interwoven throughout.