Fargo starts with a lie. Contrary to what its opening title card (carried over into the FX series) claims, the deadpan Coen brothers classic is not based on a true story. There was no real life Jerry Lundegaard, no Marge Gunderson, no Carl Showalter. There are scraps of fact to the story, but it's mostly the filmmakers' own creation, fiction in the guise of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which is now in select theaters, doubles down on the (mostly) untruths. The movie is based on a Fargo-centric urban legend that sprang up around Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who was found dead outside a small Minnesota town in late 2001. It was reported that Konishi traveled to the Midwest in a misguided attempt to find the $900,000 that Steve Buscemi's character buries on the side of the road in Fargo, the kind of novelty news story that gets picked up everywhere — the kind that Fargo aped.
Only it wasn't true. Konishi took the journey specifically to commit suicide, heartbroken after the end of an affair with a married American man. The Fargo connection was all the result of a misunderstanding she had with some local police.
The eponymous Kumiko, based on Konishi and played by Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel), is twice removed from the characters in Fargo, but she's their spiritual sibling, another figure caught between ridiculousness and pathos. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter comes from another pair of filmmaking brothers, David and Nathan Zellner, who've crafted a beautifully funny-sad portrait of isolation and depression that starts in Japan and eventually makes its way to frigid Minnesota, a place that even the locals suggest Kumiko would be better off not visiting during her chosen time of year. She may attempt to step into the world of Fargo, but it isn't just a movie for Kumiko — it's a set of clues to be decoded, a map to a new, magical life.
And Kumiko is in dire need of one, because her real life has become a quiet tragedy. She lives in a cramped Tokyo apartment with her scene-stealing rabbit, Bunzo, and works a demeaning dead-end job as a secretary, making tea for a condescending boss who wants to know why, at 29, she hasn't left yet to get married like most of her office lady peers. Her mother calls her to also insist she either wed or come home, not reading how far from either of those things her daughter actually is.
Kumiko is increasingly alienated from the world around her, drifting further and further away from a "normal" timeline, disconnecting from the few people in her life rather than facing their scrutiny. At night, looking out her window at a nearby apartment block, she watches a couple dancing in their own home — the combination of intrusiveness and solitude neatly sums up what it's like to feel alone in the middle of a crowded city.
In a dreamlike sequence at the start of the movie, Kumiko finds a secret cache inside a cave by the ocean, inside of which is a VHS tape of Fargo, which she starts examining like it contains the secrets of the universe. She fixates on the moment in which Buscemi's character Carl buries the ransom money in the snow, rewinding again and again as the tracking lines gets worse. The joke, in the movie, is that he does this on a featureless stretch of road he'd never be able to find again, fence posts stretching out in an endless field of white, but Kumiko traces the landscape and embroiders it onto a cloth map, like a kid playing at being a pirate.
"Recently, I've learned of untold riches hidden deep in the Americas," she tells a security guard at the library who catches her stealing a book of maps, trying to convince him to let her keep the page she needs. "It's my destiny," she pleads, comparing herself to a Spanish conquistador. But, of course, she's not. She might be mentally ill, though Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter doesn't diagnose its protagonist and is more concerned with portraying her mindset as the blur between fiction and nonfiction anyway.
The movie is largely a solo for the wonderfully weird Kikuchi, who's fantastically vanity-free in the role, hunched and halting in public, her wide eyes roaming the room like prey seeking an escape route. Kikuchi plays Kumiko as someone slowly losing the will to perform as a regular member of society. She's a tragic figure, but she's also funny — a scene in which she tries to resist giving her phone number to an old acquaintance who spots her on the street is staged with brilliant awkwardness.
Kumiko's Fargo fixation is so clearly doomed that the movie should be filled with dread, but the Zellners are delicate with her journey, even as she makes a desperate break with her life in Japan to head to a very chilly "New World," with only a hoodie to protect her from the brutal winter and a map to guide her. The film has some fun with the Minnesotans she meets — a police officer (played by director David Zellner) brings her to a Chinese restaurant in hopes of finding translation help, and a lonely local woman (Shirley Venard) takes her in and informs her, "My late husband was in the Korean War." But they're as well-meaning as they are baffled by her presence, trying to help Kumiko, and not understanding that the gap in their understanding goes far beyond a language barrier.
Though Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a sad story, it keeps that sadness at bay with touches of whimsy as Kumiko sets out into the snowy wilderness to find the treasure she needs to be there. Its main character is bent on seeing the world as she'd like it to be, and why would the movie fight her on that? If the line between reality and fiction is a slippery one, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter allows its point of view to occasionally slip in a direction that helps out its lonely heroine, and in doing so, grants her a more wistful adventure than Konishi, her real-life counterpart.