Obnoxiously, David and Nathan Zellner bill themselves as “The Zellner Brothers.” It offhandedly suggests Joel and Ethan Coen before Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a film that deliberately suggests the work of the Coens, even begins. Opening on a fuzzy, out-of-focus title card reading, in part, “This is a true story,” the film carefully builds its core mystery. The titular sullen twentysomething (Rinko Kikuchi) works days as a secretary in Tokyo: showing up late, less perky than her colleagues, ritually spitting in her boss’s tea. In her own time, she follows arcane maps to secret caves, retrieving buried VHS tapes. Those tapes contain a secret, an oblique chart pointing to a hidden treasure.
No use belaboring it: Kumiko is looking for the buried briefcase in the Coens’ Fargo, the one a bloodied Steve Buscemi buries along a North Dakota highway, marked with a red ice scraper. Convinced she’s located the “treasure,” Kumiko tearfully bids goodbye to her pet bunny rabbit, steals her boss’s corporate credit card, and heads to Minnesota, en route to Fargo.
The conceit is pretty nifty on paper. The idea that a place like Fargo, North Dakota could acquire the mythic resonance usually reserved for Paris, New York, or Berlin, by mere dint of the Coens’ film, is buoying. In the way that one might be drawn to Paris by Funny Face, or Berlin by that Nick Cave concert scene in Wings of Desire, Kumiko is drawn to a sleepy, snowy, Midwestern U.S. town, a place that has been convincingly invested with narrative consequence, at least in her mind. Arriving, she falls on the sort of humbling middle-American hospitality that’s at the core of Fargo, taken in by an elderly widowed woman who gifts her a paperback copy of Shogun because it’s about Japan, briefly aided in her quest for the buried briefcase by a homey, aw-shucks cop (director David Zellner).
But the Zellners want it every which way. Their paean to cinema, and to the kindness of strangers, curdles into miserablism. As Kumiko plods toward her destination, draping herself in a motel duvet to beat the winter chill, it becomes obvious that her twee questing (she compares herself to a conquistador) is just a thin veil for mental illness. It’d be an instructive lesson against the cute-ing up of such conditions if the Zellners didn’t exhibit such apparent relish in punishing their deluded protagonist.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with misery or nihilism or anything. It’s just an easy out for young filmmakers weaned on the lite art-house stuff of the Coens or Lars von Trier, for those who sort of pre-theoretically equate heavy-handed sorrow-mongering with seriousness. A film that begins as a weird, halfway-considered ode to the sway of the cinema ends up making a case against that same power, revealing filmmakers who delight in parading their own flimsily tyrannical command over the susceptible viewer’s emotions.
Berlinale runs from February 6—16.