All through the autumn I was gripped by the brilliant second season of Fargo as it went out on Channel 4. The body count by the end was colossal, but the strength of the writing never left you in any doubt about the cost of all the killing, while the black humour and post-modern wit constantly brought a smile to my face – only for it to be quickly wiped away by the next murder.
So when I got an email from Curzon Home Cinema, inviting me to take a look at Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a film about a young Japanese woman who is obsessed with locating the case of money buried in final scene of the Coen brothers’ original film, I was ready for it. Watching it, I had the curious sensation that I was seeing an epilogue to season two as Kumiko, the main character, forms the disastrously wrong idea that the Coen brothers’ film is real: it does, after all, start out with the words ‘This is a true story’.
What is real and what is not? Dylan’s question might be the epigraph for both Kumiko and the whole Fargo farrago. The second season of the TV spin-off opened on the set of Massacre at Sioux Falls, starring Ronald Reagan and Betty LaPlage. In other words, with a real (though unseen) historical character with a made-up co-star in a made-up film in a television series that purports to be based on real events and real characters, but isn’t, and that is itself based on a film that claims to tell ‘a true story’.
At the end of season two, in police custody and certain to serve time for the murders she has committed, the deluded Peggy Blomquist who has long left behind any hold on reality remarks, ‘I thought maybe I could spend my time in California. Maybe see a pelican’.
The series ended with the wholesome Minnesota state trooper Solverson family safely back together at home, and daughter Betsy gently asking Hank about the strange symbols she’s found in his study. He explains that after his wife died, he started thinking about all the ‘senselessness, conflict, miscommunication’ in the world and wondered, ‘What if here was one language, a universal language of pictures’ that could solve it all?
Miscommunication lies at the heart of Kumiko. It’s a delicate, haunting study of a woman who has in several senses lost her way. Living alone but for her pet rabbit, she is isolated, alienated from her mother and her work colleagues, and positively strange. She is addicted to watching a battered, grainy videotape of Fargo that she finds buried on the seashore in a mysterious opening scene. She becomes convinced that her destiny is to go to Minnesota and dig up the case full of cash that Steve Buscemi’s character buries at the end of the film. She informs her mother:
I am like a Spanish Conquistador. Recently, I’ve learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas.
Like Fargo, Kumiko was written by another pair of sibling film-makers, David and Nathan Zellner (with David directing). Deftly and with an unerring deadpan stare, in the first half of the film they track Kumiko, dressed in red coat and pointed hood, as she follows her daily routines in Tokyo, trying to avoid all human contact. It’s a great performance by Rinko Kikuchi who manages, while saying little, to humanize Kumiko even as we see her become more withdrawn and deluded.
In the second half of the film Kumiko abandons her pointless job, her mother and her pet rabbit, Bunzo (in what has to be one of the most poignant scenes involving a rabbit since Watership Down) to board a plane for the United States. She arrives in Minnesota, unable to understand more than a few words of English, in deepest, harshest mid-winter.
Here, the Zellners are drawing upon a story that began circulating after a Japanese woman was found dead in Minnesota in 2001. The idea that she was searching for the Fargo money turned out to be an urban legend, but the Zellners took the story and turned it into a tender portrait of a lost soul.
The first people she encounters at the airport are a born-again travel guide and his eccentric side-kick (played hilariously by the Zellners themselves). Despite Kumiko’s withdrawn and taciturn character, as she navigates a foreign language, strange culture and hostile landscape she is the object of acts of kindness from the strangers she meets, particularly an elderly woman who picks her up on the highway, and a Sheriff’s deputy (played by David Zellner) who buys her warm clothes and food, and tries to convince her that the film that obsesses her is ‘fake’.
However, Kumiko refuses to be diverted from her ‘important work’ and as the snow falls and the cold intensifies she moves inexorably towards her final destiny. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is suffused with great sadness, and leaves you haunted by its compassionate portrait of a defiantly non-conformist spirit.
Somehow this leads me to recall a great line from the final episode of season two of the TV Fargo. In a crisp affirmation of Midwest values, Betsy Solverson, the wife and daughter of Minnesota state troopers who is dying of cancer makes this response to the half-baked existentialism of her baby-sitter, Noreen, who is reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. Betsy will have no truck with Noreen quoting Camus’ line about the knowledge of death making life absurd:
We’re put on this earth to do a job and each of us gets the time we have to do it. When this life is over and you stand in front of the Lord, you try telling him it was some Frenchman’s joke.