Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a movie about obsession, isolation, and the extent to which people will go to escape reality. The drama follows Kumiko, masterfully played by Academy Award-nominee Rinko Kikuchi, as she travels from her dreary, lonesome life in Tokyo to Minnesota in search of a briefcase full of money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the 1996 Coen Brothers movie Fargo.

Kumiko is inspired by an urban legend surrounding the death of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who died in a field in Minnesota in 2001. Her death was a suicide, but the media played up a rumor that she had been searching for the money from Fargo. Fargo begins with a “based on a true story” title card, and the Coens maintained that it was true for years; however, it was completely made-up. Konishi, the myth says, believed it was real.

Kumiko believes in Fargo because it gives her something to focus on outside of her own dreadful life. She works as an office assistant for a demeaning boss who criticizes her for being too old (she’s 29). Her semi-estranged mother pressures her to get married or move back home every time they speak. Her only friend is a rabbit named Bunzo. She watches Fargo alone in her grubby apartment every night, taking meticulous notes and calculating the location of the briefcase, which she intends to find. Claiming the hidden bounty of the (nonexistent) briefcase is her destiny, she believes.

The film was written, directed, produced and acted in by David and Nathan Zellner, brothers from Austin who previously made Kid-Thing, an indie film about another isolated young woman. The Zellner Brothers have a Coen-esque dynamic, where David directs and Nathan produces. Like the Coens, the Zellners are interested in marginal characters, blending comedy and drama and playing with narrative structure. But despite certain similarities, Kumiko is very different than its source material. The movie is inevitably comparable to the other current Fargo-related project, FX’s show Fargo. But Kumiko uses Fargo as a device, not an inspiration (and it screened at Sundance before Fargo premiered on TV). It’s also comparable to a 2003 documentary about Takako Konishi, This Is A True Story, but takes a much more poetic approach.

It’s an excellent movie, carefully crafted in its cinematography, sound design, acting, and pacing. Kikuchi’s performance is startling for its emotional accuracy, the ways in which she externalizes a character who’s all internal. ANIMAL sat down with the Zellners and Kikuchi (and her translator) to discuss Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

The movie is based on a true story that isn’t actually a true story, that was inspired by what they said was a true story but wasn’t actually a true story.

David Zellner: There’s a lot of layers.

Yeah, there’s a lot of play with reality. Was there any conscious statement you were trying to make about the perception of reality?

DZ: We never like to be didactic, but we definitely had things on our mind about that. What made the multiple levels appealing to us, and how the story kept unfolding with truth versus fiction, and the different perceptions of the reality of the story, those are things that interest us anyway, especially in terms of filmmaking, like what is truthful in film, and so our personal interest played well into the dynamic that was set up on its own through the myth.

What do you mean by “your own interests?” What interested you about the layers of story?

DZ: Like, narrative films versus documentary, if one is more truthful or subjective than the other. There’s the trend that’s been around forever but seems like it’s increasingly being used more freely of putting the “based on a true story” moniker on something and it somehow legitimizes it, but then they just do whatever the hell they want with it, in a careless way a lot of the time. It’s more like a marketing hook than it is any kind of statement of accuracy. And it’s so rampant now that for me personally, it feels like it loses resonance, because when everything is based on a true story then nothing is. And a lot of them are so clearly bogus anyway. We liked the idea of playing with this true-story-based-on-a-myth, and the different levels on which it worked, and to leave some breathing room for people to take what they want from it.

Another thing that struck me about the movie was the visual storytelling, how there’s not much dialogue, and when there is, it doesn’t drive the plot as much as it does in other movies. The images move the story forward more than the dialogue does. I’m curious about the reasons behind that.

Nathan Zellner: The film is from Kumiko’s point of view, and what was essential for how we wanted to present this obsession or this quest, and have the audience empathize with her and go on this journey with her, was to keep the film from that perspective. She’s a more introverted character and we wanted to show what she was thinking, and Rinko did a great job of it, of showing us what she was thinking without having us have to rely on internal monologue or voiceover or talking to a friend like “here’s what I’m going to do.”

DZ: Rinko is alone for so much of her performance, and I think a less confident actor would have to oversell certain things, but she got what Kumiko was about and dialed in. She knew that little gestures or body language would tell much more about what was going on than making it really obvious. And that was what we wanted to do. There’s a fantastical element to the story, but we wanted to ground it on a human level, so you would be able to connect with her and her world and then go whichever direction she goes.

02-KUMIKO-THE-TREASURE-HUNTER-David-Zellner-and-Rinko-Kikuchi-Photo-by-Sean-PorterRinko Kinkuchi and David Zellner, Photo: Sean Porter

What were the challenges of playing such an affectless, facially inexpressive character, and how did you approach them?

Rinko Kikuchi: There are some idiosyncrasies and mannerisms that one might expect from a woman who isolates herself socially, and I put those into Kumiko. She doesn’t look people in the eye. She doesn’t look at things relating to herself through the eyes of another person, and she doesn’t try to. So, for instance, her hairstyle is a little strange, because she doesn’t think about how it might look. For me, it was a very interesting experience trying to create that.

It’s also rare to see a female obsessive weirdo loner.

DZ: Yeah, that was much more interesting to us, because you never see any good female leads. They’re always the girlfriend or something. Or if there are female leads, they’re “strong female leads,” which Kumiko doesn’t fit.

DZ: One of our favorite things to see an actor do is thinking. So many times in movies, they want to cut out all the thinking and just have them say, “I’m gonna do this,” very expository dialogue. For certain movies, that’s fine, but with a character like this who’s by herself, and is internalizing everything, and is constantly processing stuff, it was so much fun for Nathan and I to watch Kumiko sitting there thinking. That’s so much more interesting to us than saying what’s on her mind out loud, which is so false and boring and not anything close to what real life is like.

She reminded me of a Coen brothers character, where she’s very detached and doesn’t express much. I imagine that the Coens are aware of this movie, and you guys, at this point. What do they think of this?

DZ: We don’t know! They’re definitely aware of it, and hopefully they like it, but who knows?

It feels like Fargo is an influence, but it’s almost incidental to the story.

DZ: Well, Fargo was part of the urban myth, and if it had been a different movie we would have gone with that. We have an enormous amount of respect for them and their work, but we didn’t want to be derivative in a kind of cheap, winky, homage kind of way. There are other ways this movie could have been made, and that would have been a very easy way to make it, and we wanted to do the opposite of that. We used it as dictated in the urban myth, where it’s simply a conduit for her journey. We weren’t trying to riff beyond that. I love the way that they can balance humor and drama as well, but we wanted Kumiko to be very much its own thing. In terms of influences, probably our strongest influence was Werner Herzog, tonally. But we wanted it to have its own unique voice.

06-KUMIKO-THE-TREASURE-HUNTER-Rinko-Kikuchi-Photo-by-Sean-PorterPhoto: Sean Porter

I can see the Herzog influence in the long, slow nature shots, too. It was filmed in Minnesota and Tokyo?

NZ: Yeah, we wanted to make a non-tourist, more grounded version of Tokyo. And of course the only way to do that is to shoot in Tokyo. It’s such a unique city. And Minnesota, we couldn’t fake one location and not the other. It would have been lopsided even if people didn’t know, something would have been wonky. And the landscapes are so much characters in the film. So it was essential that we were in the actual places.

It showed a side of Tokyo you rarely see. I thought it must be someplace else, since it’s so much dingier than Tokyo is usually depicted.

DZ: Western productions typically shoot in the glitzy, really densely populated parts, from a touristy perspective. We wanted to approach it from where someone like Kumiko would actually live. It isn’t very far from those areas, but it’s a very different sort of neighborhood. There are so many locations that have been used over and over again, so it was fun to seek out other places that hadn’t been used before.

My question to wrap up is: this movie was edited by Melba Jodorowsky. Is that you guys?

DZ: No.

Really? She’s a real person? I thought that might be a Roderick Jaynes-type pseudonym.

DZ: Haha, no, and she’s not related to Alejandro.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter premiered at Sundance last year, and opens at the IFC Center on Wednesday, March 18, followed by BAM Rose on March 20. It also opens in LA on the 20th, and will be expanding nationwide in the coming weeks.