There are true stories, and there are the stories that we wish were true. The new film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, by Austin's prolific filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner, is such a story. Kumiko, played by the superb Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi, is an introverted young woman in Tokyo on the edge of 30, losing contact with reality as she grows obsessed with a VHS cassette of the film Fargo. This is no ordinary VHS tape, but one discovered by the beam of a flashlight, buried within a gloomy coastal cave, which I imagine to be located a stone's throw from the iconic Toei Company logo and not much further from the haunted well of Hideo Nakata's Ringu.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter plays out in the foggy border country between real life and cinema life. While studying the mythical cassette, Kumiko becomes certain that she has calculated the exact location of the film's ransom money, last seen buried in the snow along the side of a lonesome Minnesota highway by a bloodied Steve Buscemi. Kumiko's life in Tokyo grows increasingly isolated and dysfunctional as the promise of the buried treasure becomes more real, throwing into motion a desperate and epic journey away from the color and commotion of Tokyo to the bleak Minnesota winter and along the highway to Fargo.
If Kumiko's story sounds a bit familiar, that's because it is rooted in an urban legend that flourished and developed on internet messageboards back in the early aughts. The original post, which described a Japanese woman searching for the money from the beloved Coen Brothers film had its basis in the real-life tragedy of Takako Konishi, an office worker from Tokyo who had travelled to America and committed suicide in 2001. In reality, Takako's misadventure had nothing to do with the film Fargo; she had journeyed to North Dakota to die because she had previously visited there with a former lover who had rejected her. Nevertheless, the spark created by the bizarre misunderstanding that she'd perished in a cinematic treasure hunt caught fire and spread across the web, burning its way into Nathan and David Zellner's imaginations. They've been working on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter in one form or another ever since.
In the meantime, the Zellner brothers made other films—lots of them. Together they've written, directed, and appeared in two other features and at least a dozen short films, which range from good to mind-blowing. However, Kumiko is, hands down, their most ambitious and visually arresting film, and it comes as no surprise that over a decade of careful consideration went into it. I spoke over the phone to the Zellners after their recent premiere at MoMA in New York.
Trailer to 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' (2014), by David and Nathan Zellner
VICE: It took a long time for you to take Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter from an idea to a film. When did you get started, and how long did it take?
David Zellner: Kumiko is based on an urban legend that circulated online, starting in 2001. What we initially saw was a very minimal post without much information, which said that a Japanese woman had gone missing from Tokyo and traveled to Minnesota in search of the mythical fortune from the movie Fargo. It piqued our interest because there was so little information for something so sensational. It created a sense of mystery and intrigue, and we wanted some closure with it. The other thing about it was this idea of a kind of antiquated treasure hunt, something out of the age of exploration. Remember that this is before social media really took off, before Facebook and Twitter. If the legend had been debunked immediately, we probably wouldn't have been interested in the story in terms of making a film. There were some true elements, but all the things about the treasure hunt and the obsession with the movie Fargo leading her to Minnesota were completely made up, collectively, as part of the urban legend. We became obsessed with the story while it spread and started filling in the gaps out of our own curiosity and began working on the script from there.
At what point did you realize that this legend was material for a film?
David Zellner: When we started on the script, we didn't have any idea about the practical elements of making it happen. We just started writing and took the little bit of information from the internet and built a world around it. We had also been to Japan before as tourists, and we're big fans of Japanese cinema. From that standpoint, we had enough of a foundation to work on a story. It took years to get the project off the ground for a lot of reasons. Financing and scheduling and shooting on a tiny budget in two different parts of the world, in two different languages, with entirely different crew bases, and that sort of thing. There were a lot of false starts with it, but we kept persevering.
Nathan Zellner: Weather was a big thing as well. We wanted the movie to be grounded in reality and have authenticity to it, so we made sure that we would be able to shoot in Japan and then in the dead of winter in Minnesota. You can't fabricate snow very well on a budget.
"When you become an adult, the world is mapped out with satellite imagery."
There's a documentary called Room 237 about people who are obsessed with Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, some of whom have mapped out the fictitious Overlook Hotel, not unlike the way Kumiko maps the treasure from Fargo in the real world. Do you think stories and films can be a kind of trap for some people?
David Zellner: It's a kind of formula or logic that only makes sense to Kumiko [herself]. We wanted our story to work on different levels, especially the idea of truth versus fiction. When you become an adult, the world has less mystery. There are no unexplored lands, and the world is mapped out with satellite imagery. We liked the idea of taking a quest element and putting it in a contemporary setting and making a modern-day folktale.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter could also be described as a very strange road movie. Alexander Payne is one of the executive producers of the film, and I feel like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter would make an interesting double feature with his film Nebraska. They both concern characters on a quest for treasure in the middle of America, who experience difficulties communicating with the people they meet along the way.
Nathan Zellner: Communication is another layer that we were interested in. We saw Kumiko as an introvert and wanted to show how that would create problems for her. The people that she meets are trying to be helpful, but they're being helpful on their own terms because they can't really connect. We didn't want anyone that she meets on her quest to be an obstacle or to be something she would have to push through. It's more about how her internal struggle creates roadblocks that she stumbles over along the way.
What was working with Rinko Kikuchi like?
David Zellner: Working with Rinko was great. The kind of films we like are dramas with elements of comedy and vice versa. Rinko dialed into that right away and understood the tone we were going for and really got the character. Kumiko is by herself for most of movie and we weren't going to do voiceovers or anything like that, so it was crucial that all the information you get from Kumiko comes through her expressions and body language. Rinko acted with her whole body and embraced the character in a fearless way. She did so many subtle and understated things that telegraph information about Kumiko.
Nathan Zellner: We talked about Buster Keaton quite a bit when we were working on the silent qualities of her character.
You seem to specialize in female characters who are deeply conflicted and not verbally expressive. Not just Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, but also Sydney Aguirre in Kid-Thing, which is one of the most intense performances by a child actor in recent memory. Kid-Thing is remarkable for the way you were able to get a very young actress to project a very heavy personal dilemma without saying much.
David Zellman: With both films, a lot of it is having discussions before shooting and finding ways to relate to those characters on a human level. Once that's in place, everything goes very smoothly. There's not much dissection of the characters once we get going. There's so few good, complex female lead roles out there, so it's fun.
Do you anticipate the Coen brothers will see Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at some point?
David Zellman: Hopefully. Who knows? We were simply trying to be true to the urban legend. We have a huge amount of respect for their work. We wanted to use Fargo as a kind of conduit for Kumiko's journey and not have it be some kind of riff or winky homage kind of thing. When we were putting the film together, we wanted to make it very clear that what we were making was its own piece.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opened yesterday in New York and will be shown tomorrow, March 20, at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, after which there will be a Q&A with Nathan Zellner. The film continues through March 26 at BAM, opening at select theaters nationwide on March 27.
Follow Matthew on Twitter.