'Kumiko' pays homage to 'Fargo'

By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kumiko is a stranger in a strange land and in the equally strange movie that bears her name.

At work in Tokyo, she’s an “Office Lady” for Mr. Sakagami, a Clarence Thomas-type boss, who seems to be pushing a sexual agenda even while instructing her to buy an anniversary present for his wife.

“What kind of present?” asks Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi).

“I really don’t care,” replies Mr. Sakagami (Nobuyuki Katsube), adding, “You appear to have an increasingly poor disposition.”

Indeed, she’s a sullen sad-sack, with raggedy hair and a seriously depressed (some would say zombie-fied) demeanor — reminiscent of Bartleby the Scrivener and other downtrodden drones. While the other office girls happily chatter about perming their eyelashes, Kumiko chafes under her mother’s remonstrances: “Why don’t you answer your phone? Did you get that promotion yet? Are you dating anyone? Why don’t you move back home with me and save money till you get married?”

But Kumiko, as the title suggests, is hunting for treasure, not a husband, and thinks she discovers it at the outset in the form of a battered old VHS copy of the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo” (1996). Watching it repeatedly, she becomes convinced that the suitcase of stolen cash buried by Steve Buscemi in fictional North Dakota is real. Armed with her belief in “the untold riches of America” — and a crudely stitched treasure map — she quits her suffocating situation in Tokyo and embarks on a quixotic quest to the Minnesota tundra in search of her mythical fortune.

Maverick indie director-writers David and Nathan Zellner have an idiosyncratic sense of humor to match their idiosyncratic narratives. Their “Kid-Thing” (2012) was widely hailed as “the best undistributed film not playing at a theater near you.” Their debut movie “Goliath” (2008) concerned a missing cat by that name.

The Zellners’ fascination with animals manifests itself here with Kumiko’s beloved pet rabbit Bunzo, whom she feeds Ramen noodles via chopsticks. Similarly deadpan — and amusing — is the scene in which she screws up her precious VHS “Fargo” tape and ends up ceremoniously dumping it all down the toilet.

Once in America? “Free Tourist Information” scammers at the Minneapolis airport lead her to a tour bus that breaks down and a good Minnesota Samaritan who wonders if she ever read “Shogun”?

Talk about language barrier. Kumiko could barely even communicate in Japanese back home, let alone English here in the frigid Midwest. Her one-word vocabulary consists of “Fargo.”

Ms. Kikuchi (Oscar-nominated for her 2006 role in “Babel”) delivers a soulful performance, with a descent into mania that pulls us slowly but deeply into her world. The revelations behind her doleful, downcast eyes make her intriguing as she marches through the snow — in a motel-blanket poncho — to her peculiarly different drummer.

Director David Zellner himself does a fine turn as an empathetic sheriff’s deputy who tries to help her but gets ditched at a roadside truck stop — the Pump & Munch.

It’s a kind of philosophical essay, actually — a beautifully photographed road movie with extended long shots, little dialogue and a soundtrack that won a special Sundance prize for the mysteriously evocative score by Austin band Octopus Project.

“Kumiko” was inspired by the “true story” (or urban legend?) of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who believed the “based on a true story” title at the beginning of “Fargo,” went looking for the money and was found dead in a frozen Minnesota field in 2001. It’s both tragic and whimsical: Is Kumiko just naive or really deranged, like the Spanish conquistadors in Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” (1972)?

The slick ending doesn’t quite answer that. This is the Zellner brothers’ homage to the Coen brothers, and you have to be a fan of (or at least to have seen) “Fargo” to appreciate it. Folklore has its own cosmic truth. Literal truth, less so. Obsessive, foolhardy quests are rare these days. There are fewer and fewer uncharted places left in the world.

All very profound.

But I can’t help wondering, what if Kumiko had found an old videotape of “Monty Python & the Holy Grail” instead of “Fargo”?

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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