Moviegoers have long struggled with “truth” in movies. This struggle ranges anywhere between how historical figures are depicted and how history is portrayed to how well an actor can deliver an accent and how they hold a hammer. Even though movies try to depict reality and accuracy as best as their creators can, movies are dreams, fever dreams in most cases. Yet, they depict real sights and real sounds, charging viewers with a constant search for reality.
Few movies address this search as well as Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, the latest from the Zellner Brothers. Based on an Internet hoax that the Zellners thought to be real, Kumiko is a fever dream of a movie; one steeped in reality and un-reality equally, exploring the fuzzy boundaries between a true story and a story that someone wants to be true.
Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a shy and bored 29 year-old unmarried office girl in Tokyo, Japan living with her pet rabbit, Bunzo. But Kumiko has a secret that no one knows about. Kumiko is a treasure hunter, a Spanish Conquistador who opens the movie trekking along some remote beach to a cave where a map has led her to buried treasure. The treasure: one VHS copy of Fargo.
Here is where the layers start to build and fact blurs with fiction. Fargo, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, opens with a disclaimer “This is a true story.” It isn’t, but that disclaimer gave way to an early 2000s Internet chat room rumor that a Japanese woman watched Fargo, saw the disclaimer and trekked into the Midwestern Hinterland in search of the briefcase of money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow and froze to death. This story is also a hoax, but the Zellners know a good story when they hear it, and heeding the adage of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
How did Kumiko come by a map that led her to a cave with a VHS copy of Fargo? Who buried the movie? Is what we are seeing even happening? Throughout the movie, several scenes may or may not be playing out in Kumiko’s mind, but the Zellners present them alongside scenes that clearly are happening, further blurring any line that might separate reality and story.
This blurriness is bore out of a need for Kumiko to have something in her life of value. With the exception of Bunzo, there is nothing in her world of interest or entertainment. She lives alone, has no friends, hates her job, hates her boss and is constantly nagged by her mother. The only thing bringing her excitement is that buried treasure out there in the snow, and when her boss mistakenly gives her the company credit card for business, Kumiko sets off for the great Midwest.
Originally hailing from Greeley, Colo. but now operating out of Austin, Texas, the Zellner Brothers write, produce and direct (and act a little) Kumiko with such a steady hand that it never slips into total fact or total fiction. They achieve this feat by making both the Japan and the Minnesota/Fargo segments completely authentic. The scenes set in Japan are not filmed like strangers in a strange land, but are complacent, dull and free of adornment. For a character with Kumiko’s demeanor, they should be and when the movie shifts to Minnesota and North Dakota, it is filmed with that same poetic dullness Kumiko brings.
Holding the whole piece together is the impressive Rinko Kikuchi, who also has an executive producer credit on the film. Like a shark, Kumiko is always moving forward, relentlessly pursuing her singular goal of finding that treasure. When a bus blows a tire, Kumiko gets out and walks, even in the frigid winter weather. Treasure is her game and nothing is going to slow her down, let alone stop her. For Kumiko, that treasure, discovered in an American motion picture, is real. Fargo is not a work of fiction; it is very real and when a local sheriff (David Zellner) points out the obvious, Kumiko screams in his face, “It’s not fake!” and runs away in tears.
The same can be said of millions of wide-eyed moviegoers in the dark watching the flickering of images that are not real, but by design look and feel real. Movies are constructions, but what they stir inside the viewer is as authentic and real as anything there ever was.