Endless white. A fence extending through the snow, into an unreachable oblivion. Steve Buscemi, blood oozing from his “funny looking” face, buries a case containing $1 million in the snow, underneath the icy purgatory that is Minnesota. The money is never retrieved.
This indelible image from the Coen brothers’ Fargo, one of the most lauded films from the 1990s Indiewood boom, has been the subject of folkloric superstition. Urban legend, or perhaps historical truth, tells that a young Japanese woman named Takako Kenichi, convinced by Fargo’s opening (and fictitious) claim “This Is A True Story,” went searching through America’s Mid-West for the abandoned money, and met a grisly end.
David and Nathan Zeller––much like the Coens, a fraternal filmmaking pair who have pursued their aspirational artistic career together––have drawn upon this tale for Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Takako has been replaced by Kumiko, a Tokyo native who, disillusioned with her monotonous job and the dull cityscape, travels to Minnesota to find the fortune from Fargo; an apocryphal fortune lost and then found within cultural memory.
Enamoured with a grainy VHS copy of Fargo, in which the tape inevitably deteriorates with every play, Kumiko becomes the surrogate for us, an audience for whom deriding Kumiko’s delusions would be easy, if not for the fact that we too have made compromises and displeased those around us in pursuit of an artistic self-understanding. Fargo was the film that reshaped my understanding of film, art and memory. Hence, hyperbolic as it sounds, Kumiko’s journey is one which parallels my own experience of cinema. Where Fargo made me a cinephile, Fargo makes Kumiko delusional; but when cinema is inherently the expression of illusion, is there much of a difference?
The Zellners carry on the Coens’ commentary on damaging ambition and existential contentment, and, like the Coens, manage to find melancholy in the bizarre––Kumiko’s deliberate abandonment of her rabbit on a train is a moment of tremendous heartbreak––and warmth within the cold, with glimpses of Mid-Western hospitality peppered throughout the film.
This is all while narrowly dodging the temptations of twee quirkiness. Kumiko’s costume in the latter stages of the film, wearing a colourfully patterned quilt stolen from a hotel, seems to reflect the sensibility of indie cinema, straining for offbeat character idiosyncrasies for the sake of being peculiar. Yet Kumiko’s quilted attire is authentic to her characterisation; a desperate, penniless soul ill-prepared to combat the harsh winter of Minnesota.
Thus, Kumiko becomes the spiritual antithesis of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation: a Japanese woman, wracked with solitude and ennui, travels to The New World in search of self-knowledge, but abandons the humanity she encounters at every opportunity.
It seems unfair to continually compare Kumiko to Fargo––the pacing of Kumiko is considerably slower, and its tone is more quiet than comical, though there are some particularly abrasive non-diegetic noises––but the Zellners’ explicit intertextuality facilitates such comparisons. Where Fargo ends with the hope of renewal after the carnage, with protagonist Marge contentedly sighing that there’s only “two more months” until the birth of her baby, there’s a sad yet cathartic finality implied in Kumiko.
When all the humans have shuffled off this mortal coil, the icy purgatory that is the environment will remain, as indelible as ever.