A Stranger in a Strange Land Seeks her Fortune in Fargo, ND
DIRECTED BY DAVID ZELLNER/ENGLISH, JAPANESE/2015 (U.S. theatrical release)
Kumiko, played by Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, is a Tokyo secretary with crippling social anxiety. She spends her days avoiding her co-workers and timidly interacting with her ineffectual boss. Kumiko spends her evenings and weekends studiously watching the Coen Brothers film Fargo, specifically the scene where Steve Buscemi buries the ransom money on the side of the road. Kumiko, either unaware that the film is fictional or giving in to a grand fantasy, believes that Buscemi’s loot is still buried and is hers for the taking.
The first half of the film follows Kumiko as her professional life is sputtering. She is caught in a depressive spiral, and her mother is begging her to come home since she’s not married or dating or advancing professionally. Kumiko’s eventual choice to actually travel to Fargo is not so hard to understand when you see how miserable her day-to-day living has made her. We find ourselves constantly asking if Kumiko is crazy for thinking Buscemi’s treasure is real. Or does she lack intelligence, or does the fantasy sustain her? It’s the central question running throughout this character study.
Scenes of plane wings being de-iced and dusty snow drifting across the highway make for beautiful interludes in this strange tale.
Given Kumiko’s journey, it’s not unlikely that the fantasy of the treasure is is helping her fend off crippling depression. It’s not too far removed from the notion that if you want it bad enough, you’ll win the Power Ball. The specifics of Kumiko’s delusions are humorous, but the reasons for it are wholly relatable.
When Kumiko arrives in the unromantic frozen plains of Minneapolis, we see familiar American surroundings through new eyes. A diner, motel and drug store seem odd and slightly overwhelming. The film successfully puts us in Kumiko’s shoes and the mundane becomes alien. Strangers don’t know what to make of Kumiko, but are very kind to her while also mystified by the Japanese visitor.
Kumiko wanders around in a red hooded sweat shirt and when she enters the wilderness in search of Buscemi’s loot and encounters an angry dog, it becomes clear that she is acting as a familiar fairy tale heroine. This wilderness journey takes the film into its bright coda which closes the film on a triumphant, but ironic note.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is an alternately sad and hilarious journey. It was co-produced by Alexander Payne, the director of several bittersweet road comedies like About Schmidt and Sideways. In Kumiko, Payne finds a heroine similar to the depressive, but hopeful men that populate his dramedies. The film is directed by, written by and co-stars David Zellner, an American character actor with a great eye for striking imagery. Scenes of plane wings being de-iced and dusty snow drifting across the highway make for beautiful interludes in this strange tale. Zellner has a great eye, gets excellent performances from his international cast and doesn’t push his quirky sensibility too hard. Kumiko’s story is odd, but Zellner doesn’t oversell it as is the wont of many independent-minded directors.