By Simon Miraudo
June 11, 2014
David Zellner‘s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a real find; a curio about a collector and obsessive made for collectors and obsessives. It begins with the camera trained on a scratchy VHS tape of Fargo, and the remainder of the movie lives up to the promise of it being a discordant remix of that Coen brothers classic. The score, by Austin band The Octopus Project, swirls and whirs like a rewound cassette and Sean Porter’s icy cinematography places it within the Coens’ continuum. Inspired by an urban legend, it’s an oddly funny and often heartbreaking portrait of mental illness as well as exploration of both the freeing power and danger of cinephilia, the latter perhaps indicating why I responded to it so strongly.
Lonely Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, also a producer) doesn’t exactly happen upon the unmarked cassette holding Fargo as she does locate it by closely following a mysterious patchwork map; uncovering it on a Tokyo beach and removing it with great ceremony. She takes the opening crawl – “This Is A True Story” – as Gospel, flying to Minnesota with the intention of finding the missing millions buried by Steve Buscemi in the endless whiteness of the snow. It’s not entirely clear why she wants or needs the money; probably not even to Kumiko herself. Still, Zellner, his co-writer Nathan Zellner, and, of course, the fragile, fascinating Kikuchi, make a good case as to why an increasingly detached, isolated, emotionally ill young lady – in a city where women are outnumbering and outliving men at an alarming pace – would put her energy into a fruitless expedition like this.
On her travels, Kumiko encounters and endures numerous folksy weirdos the likes of whom often populate the Coens’ flicks. Just as Fargo was accused of mocking its characters once upon a time, Kumiko will suffer the same fate. But Kumiko isn’t dumb and Kikuchi doesn’t play her that way. She shares an obsession with the best Coen characters, though not for the same reasons. This is indeed a Coen kind of world she’s found herself in, full of twists of fate seemingly orchestrated by trickster gods, from which she’s unable and unwilling to flee. Many films tell of people who escape their daily doldrums through cinema: The Purple Rose of Cairo, Be Kind Rewind, Hugo. Kumiko is one of those people, except she’s looking specifically for a mission that might actually be endless, and the Coens’ filmography is filled with appropriately bleak, pointless, cyclical quests. She might well have fixated on the missing money from No Country for Old Men or O Brother, Where Art Thou if their tapes had been hidden for her to find too. Others escape into the dream world for a breather; Kumiko is looking to disappear completely.
Kumiko isn’t the only Fargo-inspired piece in our sphere today. A (pretty good) TV show twisting its legend proves, barely twenty years later, just how entrenched Fargo is in our pop cultural canon. Kumiko is more than simply a companion piece, however. Towards the end of Kumiko’s journey, a friendly sheriff – played by Zellner – tells her the movie is fake, offering her a chance to bring her Don Quixote-ish assignment to an end. (Think of him as the Hal Holbrook of this Into the Wild-esque adventure.) Kumiko doesn’t listen. And why should she? Fargo a fake? He’s right, but he’s wrong, you know?
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter played the Sydney Film Festival.