Sundance 2014: The Zellner Brothers create a folk hero in 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter'

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Image Credit: Sean Porter

On the surface, Kumiko is fanciful. As portrayed by Rinko Kikuchi, the isolated, lonely lead character of David and Nathan Zellner’s epic Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter dons an oversized red hoodie, sports a messy cropped bob, has one friend — a bunny named Bunzo — and leaves Japan on a quest to a buried treasure. Specifically, the briefcase full of cash that she sees buried in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo after she finds a distorted VHS copy of the 1996 film. It could have easily devolved into whimsy, but on film, she’s a driven folk adventurer on a high stakes, utterly essential quest.

“We didn’t want it too be cutesy,” David Zellner told EW after their premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “That would trivialize the character and her plight. We always wanted the audience to always be on her side and nothing to be at her expense.” In a lesser movie, Kumiko’s otherness might have been the joke, but the Zellners knew that despite her on paper oddness, she still had to be the hero. “You can laugh at situational stuff, but we wanted everyone to be rooting for her and for the stakes to be as high for the audience watching as they are for her in that moment. As soon as you stigmatize someone and separate them, it’s easier for you to distance yourself to not relate to them as a human being. It was essential to us that you relate to her on a very human level and that you believe in her quest and you want her to succeed,” David said.

That’s not to say that the aesthetics aren’t exaggerated, but Kikuchi’s stern, empathetic performance manages to ground the folk tale despite her eccentricities. “When I read the script almost five years ago, I really fell in love with it. For an actress, it’s beautiful and tough. Kumiko was really unique and special for me. I thought it was really lucky to get this role,” said Kikuchi.

“[Rinko] brings a distinctive viewpoint to her every character she portrays and that goes from the physicality of the performance to the wardrobe. We really liked that about her,” said David. “We found parameters of what she should work in — we didn’t want her to be too cute but not too dour either.” Kikuchi found the dress she wears throughout the film at a vintage store, and sort of modeled her hair off of Bruno S. in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek – one of the only movies the Zellners pointed her towards, which they hoped would give her a sense of a specific tone.

The hoodie was another thing. “When we were in Tokyo, we didn’t see a lot of red,” said David. “Everyone was wearing dark colors. It was another level to isolate her visually. She just pops out like a beacon. It also worked on a folk tale level. It’s not like Little Red Riding Hood but it just felt…adventurous.” The Zellners also had Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now in mind. “There’s a red hoodie that is very effective. We were not trying to riff on that, but [we saw] how effective it was juxtaposed with the environment. We wanted her to stand out in Japan and also against the snowy landscapes,” said David.

Kumiko does make it to a frozen Minnesota, but to say too much about the film and what the Zellners have created would spoil the adventure and the discovery of Kumiko, the Treasure HunterFargo might frame her quest, but Kumiko is not an homage to that film. It also isn’t beholden to the urban tale of the real Japanese woman who the press claimed went to Fargo to find the buried money. As David says: “It’s a conduit to launch a story.”

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