Sundance 2014: ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ looks for gold

Rinko Kikuchi in "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter."
Rinko Kikuchi in “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.”
(Sean Porter / Sundance Institute)

PARK CITY, Utah -- You probably never wondered what would happen if the heroine of “Nurse Betty” was a movie geek obsessed with buried treasure, but the Zellner Bros. have. The Austin, Texas-based indie filmmaking duo, David and Nathan (more on them separately), have made “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” a quiet but bizarrely fascinating scripted film about basically just that premise. The movie premieres Monday in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Kumiko” concerns the young woman of the title (Rinko Kikuchi) who, living a solitary life in Tokyo, becomes obsessed with the Coen Bros. film “Fargo” -- specifically the movie’s insinuation, via its “based on a true story” title card, that there’s gold in those upper Midwest hills. As she shuns acquaintances and family, she decides to head to Minnesota, where in the brutal snow she has paced out -- she believes -- exactly where the treasure is buried.

“We were just fascinated with the way story could go -- a modern-day folk tale and the notion of a treasure hunt,” Nathan Zellner said in an interview before the festival. “It’s someone crossing the globe to go to America for a mythical fortune, which has this great throwback quality.”

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The film was in development for 10 years as the duo (they are behind festival faves such as “Goliath” in 2008 and a host of acclaimed shorts) looked for the money to shoot on location. (It wasn’t helped by the fact that they could shoot in Minnesota only in the winter because they wanted the landscape piled with snow.) The brothers -- David directed and the pair co-wrote and served in other capacities -- also had to spend years negotiating the rights to “Fargo,” which appears numerous times in the film as Kumiko wears out her VHS tape carefully charting clues.

The meta (or is it meta-meta?) twist is that the story is based on a supposedly true story about a young Japanese woman who did the same thing as Kumiko does in the film about a decade ago. Only as they began developing their script, word began to spread that this was merely an urban legend.

That leads to some head-spinning consequences.

“The idea of a story based on a story based on a story that isn’t true” -- David Zellner mused -- “the way that legend develops is just really interesting to us. And then some people said it was true. It’s conflicting versions, both definitive, that we responded to. The idea of ‘our truth is as interesting as any other truth.’ ”

Kikuchi, an Oscar nominee in 2007 for her role in “Babel,” said in an interview that she stayed with this after signing up in 2008 because it had so many of these mysterious elements.
“The story was so unusual. When do you ever hear about anything like this?”


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