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SXSW 2014: Zellner Brothers film takes audiences on a fairy tale quest

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The Zellner brothers like to describe their latest film "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" as more of an adventure quest film rather than a dramatic retelling of a true-life story.

"The film came out of the idea of this person in modern day society on an antiquated quest looking for a mythical fortune," says David Zellner, who in addition to directing, also plays a policeman in the film.

Born in Greeley, Colorado, David and brother Nathan have since relocated to the indie film hotbed of Austin, Texas, where they recently screened "Kumiko," following its world premiere at Sundance and subsequent screening in Berlin last month.

The film was nominated for a Grand Jury prize at Sundance this year, following up on the sibling's recent success with "Goliath" and "Kid-Thing."

"Kumiko" stars Rinko Kikuchi ("Pacific Rim") as a lonely and depressed Japanese office worker, who has a chubby pet bunny named Bunzo.

She also has an overbearing mother, who constantly calls to nag her about getting married and having children or coming back home to live with and take care of her.

But Kumiko is steadfast in her rebellion against her mundane life situation, eventually losing herself in repeated viewings of an old VHS copy of the Coen brothers movie “Fargo."

Her obsession over "Fargo" leads to her belief that the briefcase of cash buried by Steve Buscemi's character is still out there in the Minnesota wilderness.

Thus, Kumiko draws up a rough treasure map based on calculations taken from repeated viewings of "Fargo" and leaves Japan on a quest to find the treasure and accomplish something with her life.

As kids, we always loved adventure films and quest films," David explains during an interview in the lounge at The Driskill Hotel in Austin, a day after screening the film for SXSW audiences. "I liked the idea of going on a quest across the world to uncharted lands looking for mythical fortune. I think that’s something that’s often romanticized because its something that doesn't exit anymore. There are no more uncharted lands and unfortunately less mystery in the world, but you have information at your finger tips so its a tradeoff. I think in someways we miss that kind of hunt."

The Zellner brothers first heard about the real-life story of 28-year-old Takako Konishi, upon which their film is loosely based, in 2001, when news began spreading from local newspapers to internet message boards and websites.

According to various urban myth sites, Konishi's body was found in the woods of North Dakota after weeks of hunting for the "Fargo" money buried in the woods.

Although a documentary short film "This Is a True Story" was released in 2003 by director Paul Berczeller, the Zellner's had already written their own screenplay based on their interpretation of the story.

"We liked our own reality," says David. "It was different than the urban legend. It’s interesting to see how stories evolve but we stuck with our own version."

A decade later, the Zellner's vision has become reality thanks to a terrific performance from Kikuchi, who has successfully crossed over to Hollywood with a memorable performance in the film "Babel" and roles in blockbuster action films such as "47 Ronin" and "Pacific Rim."

We had a chance meeting with her in 2008," recalls Nathan. "She read the script and responded to the character and idea. We quickly realized that we had similar sensibilities and liked a lot of the same filmmakers and films, so we were very upfront and explained to her it was gonna be a tough schedule with split shoot (in Japan and Minnesota) and that there would be a lot of walking around in the snow. As it turns out, she was up for the challenge and game for it. We couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role."

The Zellner's had also seen her in the quirky Japanese comedy "Naisu no mori: The First Contact" aka "Funky Forest: The First Encounter."

Nathan points out that Kikuchi's physicality and ability to emote without dialogue played a huge part in their film's quieter moments where audiences have to sit with her character and be in that emotional space.

"Rinko's got an interesting and expressive face," David adds. "She's able to reveal what's going on by how she carries herself."

As for their film's stylization, theme and sparse dialogue, David felt there were no conscious filmmaking influences but rather a lot of things that "came out naturally" during the production process.

We like films that are allowed to breath," David says. "They let you live in them a little. We wanted to create a whole world for this character. She's this lost soul who is by herself a lot. I think it's more respectful for the character to live in those moments. The spaces in between the dialogue."

The Zellner's also employ a lot of humor to balance out the melancholy in telling Kumiko's story, such as when she cuts up a floral motel quilt and uses it as a poncho to stay warm while trekking through the snow looking for the buried treasure.

"It was like her uniform. This is her battle gear," David says of Kumiko's improvised poncho.

As fans of the classic Werner Herzog film "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," the Zellner's felt as if Kumiko was similarly on a relentless pursuit for something that doesn't exist.

It's that quest for El Dorado. That thing that doesn't exist but you're determined to prove that it does by willing it into existence," Nathan says. "I think that sort of dreamer aspect of it appealed to us in creating the character in that way. I think it's just fascinating to see somebody who is convinced they are correct on something that everybody else believes is not and that’s why we made a lot of the choices we did, especially like with the ending."

On the technical side, "Kumiko" was shot on Arri Alexa cameras by Cinematographer Sean Porter ("Hump Day" and "Eden"), who traveled to Japan with the Zellner's to capture authentic locations true to the setting of the story.

The production also utilized two separate crews in Japan and Minnesota with Porter being the constant to maintain the film's visual continuity.

In Minnesota, the cast and crew shot in temperatures as low as minus 7 degrees, according to Nathan.

"It was cold but we made sure it was safe," David says, pointing out that it was essential to capture all the natural elements on location to give the film its authenticity.

And what do the Coen brothers think of "Kumiko," which utilizes "Fargo" as a key component in its plot?

"They haven't seen it yet," David says.

However, with all the buzz "Kumiko" has received since its premiere at Sundance, one can only imagine that it's just a matter of time before the Zellner's and Coen's meet up and talk films.

"Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" will have an encore screening at SXSW on Saturday, March 15 from 9:00PM - 10:45PM at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas.

The film will continue to screen on the international film festival circuit, including upcoming screenings in Dallas and Buenos Aires next month.

For more info about the film visit:

Official website: http://kumikothetreasurehunter.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kumikothetreasurehunter

Twitter: @kumikomovie

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