Director: David Zellner. Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, David Zellner. USA 2014. 105 mins. English, and Japanese with English subtitles.
“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” – FARGO, 1996.
Despite the Coen brothers later admitting that their cult hit wasn’t based on a true story at all, you may have heard the urban legend that the buried money at the end of FARGO was real, and remains unfound in the wilds of Minnesota.
KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER really is based on a true story, give or take some inflation of that story by the local police – though Zellner’s film is less about a suitcase full of money, and more about depression and delusion.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is an ‘office lady’. Bored and sad, she’s stuck in a melancholic haze. Walking hunched between her office and her boss’s dry-cleaner, and taking unwanted phone calls from her unsympathetic mother, Kumiko seems lost in a fug of depression. The only thing she has to cling to, the only thing she believes in and thinks will save her, is a bag of money on the other side of the world – in Fargo, MN.
In order to fulfil her self-proclaimed destiny, she destroys her SIM card, sets her pet rabbit free in the wilds of the subway, and steals the company credit card to buy a flight to the USA. These are acts that she is putting her whole self into. To us they may seem a bit ridiculous, but to sew the ‘X’ onto her canvas map is to fully commit to the plan, even if the plan means fashioning a motel duvet into a makeshift poncho.
No one she encounters in the States can get a handle on her, not even a kind-hearted police officer who tries to help. But Kumiko can’t accept that the case of money isn’t real, because it’s all that she’s got left. She is constantly at odds with her surroundings. Hers is a journey that she can’t return from; we can only speculate whether her fate is accidental, or an elaborately planned and drawn-out suicide.
The film is beautifully shot, especially in the snowy, metaphorical wastelands. With loud gushing winds and blurry peripherals, we’re as alone in the world as Kumiko is.
Rinko Kikuchi gives a standout performance. In a sparsely populated the film, she holds the screen in near-silence. Her physicality is spot on too, never tipping into a parody of a socially awkward person. Kumiko is a sympathetic character that we want to see succeed – even though we can recognise that she has no intention of being saved.
KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER is a beautiful and poignant piece of cinema.