A sad, moving tale of a Japanese woman’s confusion over Fargo

In the dim past of 2001 a story circulated on the Internet, becoming something of an urban legend. The story goes a Japanese woman mistakenly believed Fargo, the comedic crime thriller set in Minnesota, was a true story and something like a documentary. The woman from Japan travels all the way to Minnesota looking for the buried money “documented” in Fargo. The actual basis for this legend is far sadder and less comical, one I would avoid reading about until after watching Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. This indie darling became something of a Sundance sensation with its careful storytelling and sadly moving story. A bizarre tale that captures the desperate thinking of one lonely woman as she follows her dream.

Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel and Pacific Rim) works as a lonely Office Lady (think personal secretary) in Tokyo. The first 45 minutes or so of the film takes place in Tokyo, all in Japanese with English subtitles. Emotionally battered by her boss and nagging mother, Kumiko has become increasingly sullen and morose at work. Despite being made by independent film mavericks David and Nathan Zellner (Kid-Thing, Goliath), the film works as a starkly Japanese movie with its haunting themes and deliberate pacing. Kumiko faces the societal pressure of being unwed and isolated at the age of 29. It’s a very distinct cultural pressure in Japan that doesn’t really exist in our society. Western viewers will have a hard time understanding the differing social expectations placed on Japanese career women as they near 30. Her mother wants Kumiko to return home if she won’t get married. Her boss is trying to push her out for a younger Office Lady.

Kumiko discovers an old VHS tape of Fargo, the darkly comic thriller set in Minnesota and North Dakota. The Japanese woman with little command of the English language mistakenly believes that Fargo was based on true events. That leads her to search for the buried cash. It consumes her life as she loses more and more connection to reality. Kumiko is not a bad person but the social isolation she experiences has driven her to the point of thinking that flying to Minnesota is a good idea. It’s a sad, harrowing tale of one woman’s descent into oblivion.

The film picks up as its setting shifts to Minnesota. Kumiko’s life in Japan was painfully lonely. The friendly people of Minnesota take her for a clueless tourist, enabling her journey. What will Kumiko finally discover when she reaches Fargo? She’s thrown her life in Japan away.

There is a quiet intensity that beams in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Actress Rinko Kikuchi plays the sad woman with a haunting desperation. Kumiko is broken and the people closest to her don’t give her any help. It’s a strange kind of road movie, more about the journey than the mythical destination. Finely crafted from its sophisticated cinematography to the pitch-perfect performances, its themes are better understood by those with knowledge of current Japanese society. That is not to say the story’s weird energy won’t entertain Western audiences. It greatly helps to understand the pressures faced by Japanese career women and the introverted nature of Japanese culture compared to more outgoing cultures.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a movie for those seeking a little something out of the ordinary, done in a very understanding manner. It’s made for the thoughtful, emotionally mature viewer. Things do move gingerly in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. The opening act’s deliberate pacing sets a distinct tone. Those with short attention spans should probably look elsewhere. Very loosely based on a true story, this fictionalized version is a stylized counterpart to Paul Berczeller’s documentary, This Is A True Story. That documentary reveals the true facts of what really happened in this case.

Movie ★★★★☆

Welcoming folk @ 45:27

In some ways this independent film released by Starz/Anchor Bay has a stark beauty in its 2.35:1 widescreen presentation. This is an impressive looking film that sparkles in 1080P resolution. The video quality has deep color saturation and nice definition. The crisp digital video has excellent clarity and razor-sharp detail. An adequate AVC video encode handles the carefully-shot production without severe difficulties. A hint of posterization and aliasing can be spotted in a few shots.

The AVC video encode averages 20.98 Mbps on a BD-25. The main feature runs 104 minutes featuring refined cinematography by Sean Porter. Struck from a digital intermediate, the strong contrast includes excellent black levels and even flesh-tones.

This Blu-ray appears to be a fully transparent rendering of the original digital master in complete fashion.

Video ★★★★★

The included 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack impresses with subtle sonic cues and an immersive score. The music tends to be on the subdued side, carefully picking a few moments to enrich the soundstage with ambient sound effects. Presented in perfect fidelity, the audio has extremely wide dynamic range. One complaint is that Kumiko’s Japanese dialogue remains low in the mix. She barely whispers some of her dialogue. The moving score works as a rumination on Kumiko’s inner turmoil.

An important note for fluent Japanese viewers, the English subs for the Japanese dialogue cannot be turned off as they are burnt onto the video. They are presented in a white font inside the widescreen framing of the film. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included that can be turned off.

Audio ★★★★☆

Deleted & Alternate Scenes (06:47 in HD) – Three scenes comprise this extra feature, including an alternate ending that would have ruined the entire tone of the film. The other two scenes are extensions of scenes that made the film.

Audio Commentary with Writer/Director David Zellner, Writer/Producer Nathan Zellner & Producer Chris Ohlson – For a commentary with three people connected to the film, this discussion was less informative than I expected. The Zellner brothers had apparently been working on this project for years, as they were fascinated by the first reports of this woman’s tale. It’s a loose discussion that doesn’t convey a lot of concrete information about the filmmaking process behind the movie.

Trailers (All in HD) – God Help the Girl (01:50), The Better Angels (02:05), In Your Eyes (01:58), Little Accidents (02:11)

Extras ★★☆☆☆


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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