It’s been a big year for the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. The film about dastardly goings-on in America’s frigid mid-west just recently inspired a critically acclaimed television series (one that I will finish at some point). The show – which succeeded in capturing the tone of its namesake, without straight up copying it – just got picked up for a second season by FX. It’s all very exciting. But earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, an entirely different Fargo descendant, made its debut.
The film stars Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel) as Kumiko, a Japanese office lady who has become increasingly detached from society. Her self-imposed solitude has led her on a journey of discovery, but not for herself – rather Kumiko is looking for buried treasure. Specifically the money that Steve Buscemi’s character hides in the snow near the end of Fargo. As the pressures of the social construct weigh down on her – from her mom, from her boss, from old acquaintances – Kumiko decides to escape to America, in search of the fortune she believes must exist.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter shares a lot in common with Fargo, not the least of which is the fact that it was made by a pair of brothers. David and Nathan Zellner co-wrote the script, while David directed. Both men act in the movie as well, though David’s role as a concerned policeman is a little meatier. Further similarities include an Odyssey-an quest (that also borders on Sisyphus-ian) – a common Coen Brothers theme – and an overly ominous score by The Octopus Project that helps to set the mood.
The Zellners aren’t really aping the Coens with Kumiko, however. The similarities are more superficial than the differences. Kumiko is a far brighter (literally) film than anything the Coens have made in years. Much of this is thanks to the cinematography of Sean Porter, who manages to make even the most mundane Minnesotan town appear worthy of its projection on a giant screen. That’s no knock against Roger Deakins or anyone else the Coens have worked with – it just goes a way to separate the two properties. Kumiko manages to be less stylized than Fargo, while still looking beautiful.
Perhaps that relates back to the Zellners’ fascination with “true stories.” The first image in the film is a grainy shot of the opening disclaimer from Fargo – the one that declares the film to be based on a true story. For all intents and purposes, Kumiko was based on a true story as well. The Zellners wrote their movie around the urban legend about a Japanese citizen who came to the US in search of the Fargo money circa 2001. That story may not be technically true, but then again neither is the story depicted in Fargo. But Kumiko (the character) is taken in by the Coen Brothers’ tale of greed and karma. In Kumiko’s mind, finding that bag of cash is her destiny – the purpose that the people around her keeping urging her to find.
The Zellners aren’t the Coens, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is an incredibly satisfying motion picture. It is wildly funny and affectingly melancholic and sad, thanks in no small part to an astonishingly well-executed, mostly-physical performance by Kikuchi. Kumiko may not be the kind of Fargo follow-up the Coen Brothers would make themselves, but it is part of a legacy of which Joel and Ethan should be proud.