When I first read the description of "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter," I got a little upset. "Kumiko" is based on the story of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who mysteriously died in Minnesota in 2001 after wandering around the Minneapolis area for several days, speaking little English. A story circulated that she had been trying to recover the buried money depicted in the Coens' brothers film "Fargo," but this turned out to be a misunderstanding she had with a local policeman. Konishi was depressed from her breakup with an American businessman, who she'd visited the area with before, and likely committed suicide as a result. Paul Berczeller cleared everything up in his 2003 documentary about Konishi's final days, "This is a True Story." But now here came "Kumiko," which appeared from the trailers to be a deliberate attempt to cash in on the fictional, sensationalized story. "Fargo," despite famously declaring that it was based on a true story, wasn't. "Kumiko" isn't based on a true story either, but on a mistaken interpretation of real-life events. I felt indignant that the filmmakers seemed to be obfuscating what actually happened, whether intentionally or not. The notion rankled me something fierce.
Crucially, however, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" isn't about Takako Konishi and never pretends to be. It's about that curious treasure-seeking figure from the urban legend that was created before we learned Konishi's circumstances. What kind of person would believe that "Fargo" was a documentary and that it pointed to a real hidden fortune? What kind of person would travel halfway around the globe in search of it? I was expecting "Kumiko" to be some kind of pulpy genre film featuring a plucky, exotic heroine. Instead, it's a melancholy portrait of a young woman slowly losing her grip on reality. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) lives a solitary existence in Tokyo, working as an Office Lady, and quickly aging out of the position. Everyone agrees that she ought to get married and have a family, but this doesn't interest Kumiko. Instead, she obsessively watches and rewatches an old "Fargo" VHS tape that she found secreted away at the seashore, and comes to believe the story is real. She starts making maps based on the information from the movie and preparing for the journey ahead. And when her situation becomes unbearable, and the opportunity presents itself, Kumiko goes to Minnesota to begin her great treasure hunt.
The very particular, delicate mood created by the Zellner brothers is what allows "Kumiko" to walk that thin line between tragedy and uplifting adventure, to reconcile a fantasy of a woman that didn't exist and the harshness of a real woman's death. The carefully constructed environments and Rinko Kikuchi's performance are extraordinary to take in. Much of the film is spent in near-silence as we follow Kumiko through her daily routines, on her early excursions, and finally to the frozen Midwest. We experience the world as she does, always throwing up obstacles and challenges in her path, full of people who don't understand her on both sides of the ocean. She never says much, and much of her behavior remains a mystery, but we see Kumiko's resourcefulness and her daring, her little moments of triumph and heartbreak. She's eccentric, but rarely confused. The rest of the world simply doesn't understand things the way she does.
I especially admire how the Zellners make Minnesota and its inhabitants feel so foreign to the viewer. Perhaps they go a little overboard with the colorful dialogue, which pokes gentle fun at some of the folks Kumiko encounters along the way. However, this America is clearly the America of "Paris, Texas," and "Stoszek," a strange, evocative land that it's very easy to become lost in. Kumiko transforms into a fairy tale figure as the film goes on, with more than a few visuals echoing "Little Red Riding Hood." There's also the way that "Kumiko" is self aware of its own relationships to "Fargo" and to Takako Konishi. The false "Fargo" notice screen, claiming "This is a true story" appears repeatedly in "Kumiko," perhaps helping to convince our heroine that the lost money is real. But if Kumiko doesn't resemble Konishi the way that "Fargo" doesn't resemble true events - well, who's to say that in her universe, in her reality, the money isn't real?
"Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" doesn't do right by Takako Konishi, but it does right by Kumiko. And now, along with the "Fargo" television series, it's a wonderful example of media building on other media in unconventional, transformative ways. I got so much more than I bargained for with this film, and a good reminder that what's real and what's true are often entirely different things.