In 2001, a stranger-than-fiction “true story” emerged in local papers about a 28-year-old Japanese woman who flew from Japan to Minnesota and bussed to North Dakota to search for the buried money from Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film “Fargo.” Her dead body was discovered in the snowy wilderness, making the tale even more intriguing.
As the reports will tell you, Takako Konishi stood out as she wandered around in the snow in a mini-skirt. Between the language barriers and the mysterious map that she carried, rumors started to spread that perhaps she had believed the opening title card to the Coens’ film. It reads: “This is a true story.”
The only problem was that none of it was true.
An investigation by writer and filmmaker Paul Berczeller a few years later found that Takako Konishi’s journey and suicide was likely related to an affair and not a briefcase full of cash from a fictional movie.
In the years between the initial reports and the ultimate debunking, indie filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner became fascinated with the myth, and decided to reimagine the sensational story as an epic quest - even after the truth came out.
In “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” the Zellners (David Zellner directed, both co-wrote and co-star) create a haunting, fantasy adventure for the ages in one of this century’s most breathtaking independent films.
We first encounter Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) as a distant figure trudging along a rocky shore in a red-hooded sweatshirt. She has the gait of someone who knows exactly where she is going as she heads into a dark cave and digs into a little crevice to find a slimy, buried VHS tape of “Fargo.”
As the words “this is a true story” flash at the start of the film, Kumiko decides that it really is true and her obsession takes course as she carefully sketches maps of the endless wire fence where Steve Buscemi’s character buries the cash-packed briefcase.
Kumiko’s life in Japan is a lonely one, which is fleshed out in devastating, often hilarious detail. In her job as an “office lady,” she hovers in the corner in a near-trance deciding whether or not to spit in her boss’s tea. At home, in her tiny, cluttered apartment, she reluctantly picks up phone calls from her disapproving mother and cares for her pet rabbit.
Kikuchi, an Academy Award nominee for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2006 film “Babel,” is beautiful, severe and makeup-free, with an intense, suspicious gaze.
When Kumiko talks to others, it’s almost in a whisper. Every word uttered seems like a herculean effort. She might be severely depressed or something else entirely, but it’s clear she was not meant for this world.
Already disconnected, her new mission allows her to retreat from society even further as she embarks for the new world, imagining herself as a modern-day conquistador.
Things go wrong from the start when she arrives in Minnesota. After her bus breaks down, she sets out on foot, hobbling down the side of a major road in the windy snow.
Every soul she encounters tries their best to help her, while also trying as politely as they can to talk her out of going to Fargo. A wonderful police officer (played by director David Zellner) actually tries to explain that the movie is not real. The setbacks just make her more determined.
With a steady gaze and expert attention to composition and color, David Zellner and cinematographer Sean Porter have created a stylish, moody world around Kumiko that is ominous and alien. The atmosphere is enhanced by The Octopus Project’s melancholy music and a few perfectly placed nods to Carter Burwell’s iconic “Fargo” score.
“Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” transcends the gimmick of the mythical origin story to become something of its own: An enchanting, original work of art that seems too good to be true.
“Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter,” an Amplify release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 105 minutes. Four stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
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