The Coen brothers’ stylish, hard-edged neo-noir Fargo, which pits sinister big-city greed against homespun small-town wholesomeness, is neither set in the titular town nor based on a true story, despite the devious claim made at the beginning of the 1996 film. David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter adds a few more layers onto this heap of fabrication, reimagining the now-debunked urban legend of a Japanese tourist who, so caught up in the illusion, froze to death in a filed while pursuing the film’s buried briefcase full of stolen cash. Like Fargo, Kumiko is savvy about its supposed source material, and finds its best moments in the spaces between these two stories, hovering around the nebulous edges of what constitutes fiction. Using a sensationalist structure as an entry point for a quiet tale of personal crisis, it gradually erases its real-world trappings, settling firmly into the perspective of a lost soul who finds solace in the swaddling security of fantasy.
This all starts with a moment of fantastical happenstance, with a VHS tape found nestled beneath a rock inside of a dreamy seaside cave. Whether this occurrence is the source of Kumiko’s delusions or a part of them is never explained, and the film makes use of this ambiguity, liminally occupied with exploring both possibilities at once. It affects the same kind of passage in its narrative progression, starting off in the staid, static world of its 29-year-old title character (Rinko Kikuchi), whose life is both not yet started and already over; her professional and familial frustrations are emphasized by tight spaces and punctilious framing. Before long she’ll have traded in this lifestyle for the ephemeral freedoms of loot-seeking folly, comparing herself to a conquistador in search of the new world.
This break occurs via a mid-story transition to the wilds of northern Minnesota, although the film is dogged in maintaining the character’s estrangement, littering her journey with pitfalls and obstacles. Alienation remains a constant throughout Kumiko, both in its geometrically stifling Tokyo locations and the expansive whiteout of wintry small-town America. The only difference is the source. At first Kumiko is menaced by everyday concerns, an unfulfilling job and a crude boss who informs her that it’s time for her to move on, opening up her “office lady” position to younger, fresher applicants. There’s the constant specter of phone calls from her mother, who’s obsessed with her either marrying or returning home to hide her spinster shame. These malignant forces confirm Kumiko as a fairy-tale figure, alone on a perilous quest and eventually outfitted in a modified hotel comforter which grants her a passing similarity to Red Riding Hood.
The character’s decision to take control of her life, partially prompted by the destruction of her beloved Fargo tape, becomes the second source of alienation, since in doing so she departs to a foreign land whose language and customs she cannot understand. Naïve and obsessive, Kumiko seems doomed to perpetually be an outsider, a true believer whose unblinking faith in the simple power of stories shrinks her down to nothing, a speck amid the frigid, featureless landscape. The comedy of errors which defines her shambling progression westward from Minneapolis—full of wobbly eccentrics doing their best to offer help—threatens to grow stale at times, but it’s buoyed by some ingenious shooting and the insistent strangeness of the circumstances. Before long things shift permanently into abstraction, the myopic nature of the quest consuming both Kumiko and the film’s perspective. Here she’s finally accorded some peace, absorbed into her surroundings as the palette lapses into an all-consuming white, the complexities of history and legend, truth and fiction, tragedy and victory, all dissolving completely amid a single moment of bliss.