A woman looks for the buried loot of Fargo in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Without a choice, a woman searches for a better life

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Unsettling ideas about motherhood and pop culture obsession lurk just beneath the surface of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a new, ambitiously strange drama by independent filmmaking duo David and Nathan Zellner. The titular adventurer — a Tokyo office worker with grand aspirations — believes a mysterious VHS copy of Fargo will lead her to the treasure buried beneath the snow in the film's conclusion.

The film, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is now screening in select theaters, is inspired by the urban legend of Takako Kanishi, a woman from Tokyo who was found dead outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The story goes that Kanishi was in search of the Fargo treasure, but an investigation revealed Kanishi had lost her job and revisited an area she'd shared with a former lover. In a field, she committed suicide with a cocktail of alcohol and sedatives. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is fascinated with the line between fact and fiction, the real world and the film world. The film appropriately contorts itself, telling the fictional story of a real life event that itself was fictionalized to incorporate the treasure of a fictional story that claimed to be real.

The premise is enticing, but Kumiko's adventure progresses slowly and meticulously, like a series of beautiful, glossy photographs tacked into a scrapbook. Shots are constructed with such care and purpose that it’s tempting to read each with the precision Kumiko devotes to cross-stitching her treasure maps.

The film is fillled with mysterious symbols and clues; Kumiko wears red throughout the film, and red scarves hang from the necks of the few people who show her affection. And so, Kumiko’s life is one in pursuit of an escape. Scenes often begin and end with characters in profile, or the camera locked onto Kumiko's head in the center of the frame, almost as if it's physically harnessed to her. The score sounds like the original Fargo soundtrack, but gradually digitized and distorted, as if the audio has been gnawed by a busted cassette player. Like Kumiko’s adventure itself, it’s not immediately clear where any of these individual stylistic choices will lead.

The Tokyo that Kumiko leaves behind is a place void of freedom. The places she frequents — the subway, the library, the office — are constructed in claustrophobic corridors. Caught between library stacks or dark hallways, the current of the city pulls her from one destination to the next. When Kumiko rests, she’s often obscured behind a doorframe or a window; or the film shows her in harsh profile, pinning her to the wall, like a butterfly in a shadowbox.

Early in the film, when Kumiko first decides to leave Tokyo for Fargo World, we see the city from her point of view. Inside of a library’s elevator, we watch layers of humans pass by as she descends. From that point forward, her life is dominated by a series of different captors, people who want to remake her in their own image. Her boss wants her to be a servant; evangelists assume she's a Christian; a stranger adopts her; her mother misses the child that grew up. These authority figures are as restrictive as her environment, but their presence lends structure to both the film and its protagonist.

women in this film are defined entirely by their ability to be mothers

Kumiko is at a crossroads in her life: she must decide whether to get married and have children, or to return home under the watchful eye of her mother, who haunts Kumiko through her cellphone. For the most part, women in this film are defined entirely by their ability to be mothers. We see the life-fulfilling happiness of motherhood through Kumiko’s only friend, and the loneliness through the empty nest of an unexpected ally.

At times, the film portrays Kumiko as mentally ill, or perhaps an extreme version of the kind of film fanatic who obsesses over a single text. (Her preoccupation with Fargo, her inability to distinguish fact from fiction, her need to find meaning in a single scene of a popular movie, certainly plays as a metaphor for often myopic art of certain kinds of film criticism.) But the film feels much more like a howl against patriarchy and the expectations of motherhood on young women. It’s too painful to think that Kumiko, who so desperately wants adventure, to find the unknown, to find somewhere she belongs, is doing so because of some mental imbalance or pop culture preoccupation. Is it truly crazy to wish to live one’s life for one’s self?

It's too painful to think that Kumiko is just crazy

At the end of the film Kumiko rides a ski lift upward, high into a featureless snow. In the deep winter, there are no lines, or signs, or people to make demands of her. There’s emptiness, and the sense that true freedom might be free of everyone else — especially Mom and her unrelenting expectations.

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