The Woman in Red
By Kristi Mitsuda

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Dir. David and Nathan Zellner. U.S., Amplify

It’s an irresistible hook: taking the Coen brothers at their word that Fargo is based on a true story, a Japanese woman goes in search of the fictional film’s buried loot. Extrapolating from the urban legend of Takako Konishi (whose body was found in the woods of Minnesota in 2001), another sibling filmmaking duo with an oddball sense of humor—Zellner brothers David and Nathan—vividly imagine the life of the unknown woman in the Sundance-celebrated Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Opening on a shot of Fargo’s “This is a true story” proclamation, the Zellners in one fell swoop provide expository information by refreshing the audience’s movie memory while also gesturing at Kumiko’s origins: upon conception the brothers believed the account to be based on fact until a short documentary about Konishi by Paul Berczeller, titled This Is a True Story, debunked the Fargo aspect. Nevertheless, the Zellner brothers proceeded from the original lore, with its fertile fusion of hidden treasure, cross-cultural intrigue, and cinematic obsession, mobilizing the adventure plot in service of more existentialist, revisionist ends. This tale is more inward-looking than action-oriented, and features an uncommon leading lady.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes a mythic approach from the start. Walking along a beach in her characteristic hooded red zip-up, following an apparently hand-sewn map, our heroine (Rinko Kikuchi, playing the role as weary warrior) enters a cave. She stoops to turn over a rock, and the camera stays steady on a shot of her hand as she slowly peels back layers of parchment to reveal . . . a VHS tape, which she holds aloft in the glow of her flashlight for an ironical Holy Grail moment. But then the Zellners—David directs, Nathan produces, and both share writing duties—shift gears and begin filling in Kumiko’s backstory with an acute awareness of Japanese culture. As in their previous features—such as Goliath, with its recent divorcée obsessing over his missing cat, and overlooked masterpiece Kid-Thing, in which an under-supervised little girl discovers a woman who’s fallen down a well—the brothers mine absurd situations for humor while encouraging empathy for the individual at the film’s center through a steady diet of closely observed details.

Kumiko works in Tokyo as an “office lady”—think along the lines of a secretarial pool in 1950s America—and is noticeably out of place among her peers. After the film’s wordless five-minute intro suggests the possibly fantastical origins of her Fargo find, the first line of subtitled dialogue intriguingly jars: “Look, I permed my eyelashes.” One office lady discloses this to the others while on a break, and the Zellners capture the tenor of the cosmetically centered conversation, all giggles and girlishness, before cutting to a shot of Kumiko—alone around the corner, pouring tea. A similarly succinct comparison later finds Kumiko in a store, upgrading to a Fargo DVD, situated next to a perky female associate on the phone. With her disheveled hair, no-bullshit eyes, and unsmiling silence, Kumiko is a rebuke to Japanese femininity, distinguished as it is by a perpetual chirpiness, uptilting intonations, and manicured prettiness. And as the one bright pop of color in the otherwise gray landscape of Tokyo’s concrete jungle and washed-out winter skies—she’s nearly always in her red hoodie—her difference is given visual form.

Is Kumiko suffering from depression? Anxiety? Something along the autism spectrum? Her antisocial awkwardness is humorously palpable in every encounter. The camera often cleaves close to her—sometimes tracking her movements from front or back—so that we register shifts in her body language. She resists eye contact, shrinks away from others, literally runs from uncomfortable situations. When an old acquaintance (Kanako Higashi) recognizes her, Kumiko at first pretends not to hear her name and then—realizing there’s no escape—visibly steels herself. At various points, the Zellners’ frequent musical collaborators, the Octopus Project, give sonic voice to the strangeness Kumiko feels in even innocuous situations; their electronic score, for instance, adds a sense of eerie unease to a slow zoom into Kumiko waiting in a café, coaxed into meeting up with the woman she ran into on the street. If she’s not at work, she’s rewatching Fargo, taking notes and sketching maps in a journal while paused on Steve Buscemi burying the briefcase of money. Her only friend seems to be a pet rabbit, Bunzo.

Or perhaps, the Zellners compellingly hint, rather than afflicted by mental illness, Kumiko is reacting reasonably given the strictures Japanese society places on its young women. Phone conversations with her mother are typically fraught with admonitions: “You should move back home until you’re married.” Her boss (Nobuyuki Katsube) points out that most office ladies are married and have children by her age—twenty-nine—and bluntly states, “There are many fresh young girls wanting to be OL. And when older people don’t make room, it can hold them up.” To this, Kumiko inserts, “With all due respect, sir, we all have our own path.” In so carefully setting up the context of gendered expectations, the Zellners thus frame her search for Fargo fortunes as an act of resistance.

A disorienting set of images signal the shift from Japan to America. Eventually recognizable as shots of airplanes being de-iced, beautifully backlit and set to Pete Drake’s swoony “Dream,” the sequence fittingly precedes a title announcement of Kumiko’s arrival in The New World. Small inclusions such as this, seemingly out-of-place at first but of a piece with the narrative fabric, lend the film a subtle surrealist sheen and levity. Kumiko finds her gray world now awash in white, first, amongst the airport’s stark walls, then Minnesota’s glaring snowiness. Previously she’s been primarily lensed in dimly lit, cramped quarters, whether her apartment—the flicker of the TV often offering the only interior illumination—office corners, or interrogation room (after she attempts to steal an atlas from the library), as well as framed through doorways or shelving to conjure claustrophobia. But when actively in pursuit of her goal—as she is at the beginning on the beach, and at the end as she closes in on her destination—Kumiko is more frequently released into wider spaces, held in long shots that contextualize her colorful figure in the landscape.

Along the way to Fargo, she encounters a solicitous woman (Shirley Venard) who gives her a ride off the freezing highway, and then a cop (David Zellner himself). A different kind of indie film would’ve amped these locals up to the level of zany, perhaps pushed Kumiko to fall in love with the police officer—both clichéd directions are hinted at by the Zellners, but we’re happily spared the life lessons that might’ve ensued from these possible tangents as Kumiko continues determinedly on her path. (That said, the script nails the well-meaning Midwesterners’ alternately reductive and ill-informed ways of relating to the foreigner: Upon learning that Kumiko is from Japan, the former reveals that she’s read Shogun, while the latter takes her to a Chinese restaurant for translation help.)

As Kumiko goes forth on her quest, the film’s straddling of fanciful and realistic realms begins to feel problematic, tugging us in two directions. On one hand, there’s the whimsical nature of the movie-fixated mission, and on the other the straight-faced portrait of a woman’s increasing desperation. After Kumiko transforms a brightly patterned motel bedspread into a makeshift poncho that, paired with the fairy-tale red riding hood, gives her an otherworldly iconicity against the snowy backdrop, we’re brought back down to earth with the policeman’s pronouncement upon finding her under the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues: “I got a call about a lady wandering around in a blanket.” And it dawns that it’s in the space opened up by the movie’s tonal divide that the Zellners locate the pathos of Kumiko’s delusion, as the gap between how she sees herself—as a Spanish conquistador, she says—and how others view her widens past the point of no return.