A recurring theme in many of the Coen Brothers' best films is a desire to attain something more. Usually this comes in the form of money, and the desperate attempt to claim it tends to end in one disastrous hair-brained scheme or another. There's no better example of this than their Midwest crime classic, Fargo, with its quirky homespun characters all vying dangerously for a dream they may never attain. The Coens are probably used to others emulating their films at this point but chances are they never expected Fargo to be the basis for the bizarre, bewitching fairy tale Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, a peculiar oddity that should appeal to those whose tastes favor the offbeat.
"Melancholy" doesn't even begin to describe the world inhabited by Kumiko, portrayed by Pacific Rim and The Brothers Bloom's Rinko Kikuchi. A sad, lonely "office lady" living in Tokyo, Kumiko's life revolves around performing meager jobs for her boss, and enduring painful phone calls from her disappointed mother. Nothing she does can ever be good enough, especially when it comes to finding a man and getting married. In fact, Kumiko seems incapable of relating to people at all, much less forging any kind of lasting relationship. But she does have her plush toy bunny Bunzo as her only companion. While it's not made expressly clear (like much of the film), Kumiko dreamily wanders along the shore with a treasure map, leading to a spot where she finds a beat-up old VHS tape of Fargo. She quickly becomes obsessed with it, and through the choppy footage she can see Steve Buscemi's character hiding a briefcase full of cash. Kumiko, fooled by the Coens' assertion the story is based on fact, comes to believe this briefcase...this treasure...is buried somewhere in North Dakota. Through an increasingly weird series of events involving bank fraud and the creation of a homemade map, Kumiko sets out (decked out like Red Riding Hood) on her quixotic journey to find it.
Bear in mind that Kumiko has hardly said two words by this point and yet we can see the sadness, the gears shifting behind those dark eyes. It's a remarkable performance by Kikuchi who we've largely seen play more spirited characters in the past. She's the anchor of an unlikely hybrid combining the sullen Japanese storytelling style with the unorthodox tone of the Coens, or better yet exec-producer Alexander Payne. As Kumiko lands in Minnesota, due to an airline mishap, she encounters a number of eccentric Midwesterners who help or hinder her quest. With their plain-spoken deadpan demeanor these characters will feel like they were transported directly from Payne's road trip comedy, Nebraska, but they never reach the level of caricature. And much like Bruce Dern's character in that film we are left to ponder Kumiko's mental state. Why is she so eager to believe in such an unlikely dream and follow it to through to the end? There are moments when she seems to be acutely aware of what's going on around her, and perhaps aware of something everyone else is incapable of seeing. Mystery pervades nearly every moment and those lingering questions help ease us through the occasional lulls in momentum as Kumiko hits the heartland. Nobody's rushing to get anywhere in this particular story, and that includes writing-directing duo David and Nathan Zellner's screenplay.
While this is hardly a large studio effort it's the most ambitious project to date by the Zellners, and it's an impressive jump to the big time. Where they came up with an idea for something like this can't be left totally to their imagination, but from reality. The story is based on the true story of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who in 2001 was discovered dead in the Minnesota snow. The media blew up her story into one that included a search for the missing Fargo money, when the real details were quite mundane. What the Zellners have done is take the incredulous aspects of that tale to the ultimate degree while still keeping one foot planted firmly in reality. To put it bluntly this is a film that probably should not work at all considering the disparate tones they are attempting to meld, but anchored by Kikuchi's performance, otherworldly visuals and a haunting score the Zellner's have created a film of exquisite beauty and deep meaning for those willing to be a little adventurous.