In the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, small-town newspaper editor Maxwell Scott shares some wisdom about storytelling. “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.” Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the new film starring Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), proves that sentiment is alive and well.
The film, directed by David Zellner (Kid-Thing) and written by him and his brother Nathan, is based on an eerie urban legend about a Japanese woman who died in the snowy Minnesota woods 14 years ago.
That legend goes like this: In the winter of 2001, police in Bismarck, N.D., received calls about a woman in a miniskirt wandering out in the cold. The woman, Tokyo native Takako Konishi, spoke almost no English, but insisted that she had to get to Fargo. She presented a hand-drawn map to police, and from that the cops deduced that she had come to the Midwest to find the cash-filled briefcase that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in the snow in the 1996 Coen brothers film Fargo.
Police tried repeatedly to explain to Konishi that although the opening credits of Fargo claim “this is a true story,” the movie is fictional and the cash she was seeking never existed. Nothing got through to her, so the officers gave up and put Konishi on a bus to her destination. Days later, a hunter found her dead in the Minnesota woods.
When the Zellner brothers first heard this bizarre tale, they were hooked. “We just became obsessed and wanted to fill in the gaps of what led to her death,” David says. “We created our own story.” The duo began writing a screenplay, but as time went on, the truth of the woman’s story began to surface: Konishi had never been looking for the Fargo treasure. A suicide note that she mailed from Bismarck reached her family in Japan weeks after her death. She had come to the area to kill herself.
“At first we were caught off guard when it was debunked,” David says. “But we were more interested in being true to the legend.” In the film there is no suicide note. Kumiko is just a girl who finds purpose in an almost grail-like VHS copy of Fargo that she finds in a cave.
Speaking of Fargo, the Zellner brothers have never heard from the Coens, but they’re sort of okay with that. Kumiko features select scenes from Fargo—and getting the rights to those scenes took a long time—but the Zellners say their goal was never to co-opt the work of other filmmakers. “We wanted to simply use [Fargo] as a conduit of Kumiko’s journey, not as some cheap, winky homage,” David says. “We wanted Kumiko to be very much its own thing.”
And Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is very much that, a proud throwback to an older kind of storytelling, where fact gave way to fantasy, and true stories had room to grow into myths.