Chasing the Dream, by Tyler Smith
Many years ago, I heard a rumor about a young Japanese woman that went searching for the million dollar satchel depicted as being lost in the movie Fargo, which falsely claimed to be based on a true story. Like many others, I chuckled at the idea, never really sure if the rumor was true or not. Somewhere inside, I felt it was. After all, stranger things than that have happened. And, of course, with acceptance of this rumor as true comes a sense of superiority. With so many stupid people in the world, certainly I could never do such a thing, right?
This is the idea explored by David Zellner in Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. He approaches the rumor as undeniably true and proceeds to depict the sad (yet strangely humorous) story of Kumiko, a lonely young woman living in Tokyo, who finds a VHS copy of Fargo and mistakes it for a documentary. She becomes more obsessive about it, especially as her life seems to be come more and more unmanageable.
Eventually, Kumiko takes the company credit card and charges her way to the Great White North, desperately wanting to make her way to Fargo. Along the way, she encounters several kindred spirits; people whose lives seem to be as lonely and desperate as Kumiko’s. There is a particularly heartbreaking sequence featuring an old widow who takes pity on Kumiko after finding her on the side of the road and invites her in for a hot meal and clean lodging. Kumiko is grateful, but decides to move on when the woman tries to talk her out of going to Fargo.
Sequences like this are key to understanding Zellner’s approach to the story. While there is a humor to Kumiko’s story, there is also an underlying sympathy. We spend a good portion of the film incredulous about Kumiko’s goal, most of us can understand her passion. It’s a passion that cannot be deterred, no matter how silly it might seem or how many well-intentioned people try to sway her away.
To anybody living in Los Angeles, this is a story that could look very familiar. Every day, thousands of people come to this city, inspired by the movies and dreaming of a virtually impossible life of fame and fortune. They want to be the stars of tomorrow, and are sure that they can be. Certainly, there were people that tried to talk them out of it, but they don’t care. It’s not merely that they want to chase this dream; they need to chase it.
Many of us are chasing a similarly futile dream that puzzles our friends and embarrasses our parents. They shake their heads at our obsession with achieving this goal, but we don’t care. We have seen what our lives would look like without this, and it’s not acceptable. And so we keep moving forward, even if it is towards failure and ruin. Because, hey, at least we tried, right? That’s more than most people can say.
Zellner’s understanding of this idea is what makes Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter so compelling. On one hand, we can’t help but look down on Kumiko as she goes deeper and deeper into denial. On the other hand, we still root for her, and somehow hope that she gets what she’s searching for (forgetting, if only for a moment, that what she’s searching for literally doesn’t exist). The balancing of the audience’s reaction is far more interesting than if Zellner had simply picked a side.
If he had chosen to make this a straight-up comedy, it probably would have been a good one. But it wouldn’t haunt us like it does. However, if he had played it completely straight, and ignored the obvious issues that the audience would have with Kumiko’s desires, we would be stuck with a character we don’t understand and don’t like. By combining the two, we are welcomed to observe the outlandishness of it all, while being invited to see the instincts that are operating underneath.
A great deal of credit can also go to Rinko Kikuchi, who seems to understand the tone that Zellner is going for and calibrates her performance accordingly. Kumiko is not seen as a total moron, but certainly isn’t an etherial cherub, either, too pure for this world. There is neither judgment nor admiration in Kikuchi’s performance; only honesty. She is the core of a film that desires to honestly explore what can make people to step outside our mainstream expectations and do something different. Yes, that something can be very silly, ultimately tragic, and maybe even a bit stupid, but it might be the only choice these people can make. And, in some cases, like that of Kumiko, it’s not even really a choice at all.