Tracking the urban legend of a quest for Fargo’s ‘treasure’ from the far east to midwest.
Co-written and produced with brother Nathan, David Zellner’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a curious film. Based on the tragic suicide of a Japanese tourist in North Dakota whose death cruelly mutated through news media and the Internet to be “as a result” of a treasure hunt for the suitcase of cash buried in Fargo, it maintains a deceptively potent distance. It doesn’t laugh at Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a disaffected Tokyo office worker who is convinced by an old VHS of the film, nor does it play it straight or for easy sentimentality. The end result, grounded by Kikuchi’s magnificent performance, is haunting. Zellner, who also plays a kindly midwestern police officer in the film, discusses the fine line between humour and pathos, Werner Herzog as an influence, and the significance of ski lifts.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
DAVID ZELLNER: Well, I’m a big cinephile. I love everything about the medium and find it endlessly fascinating. It’s an art-form with infinite possibilities to it and that’s exciting to me.
BG: Kumiko took quite a while to complete from its original idea, and in the interim, you made other films. Did the original idea for Kumiko change at all with those other films in mind?
DZ: Absolutely. I think your taste and sensibility evolve over time. We wrote a draft of it and then made a couple of other features, a whole lot of shorts, and some music videos. Everything we’ve done before informs, directly and indirectly, everything else that follows. I think the film as you see it now would be different if we had made it prior to the other things.
BG: Kumiko at its heart—or at least for me, because I know it’s had divergent opinions—is a remarkably sad film, and the urban legend is based on a real-life suicide. Was this a difficult film to write tonally, insofar as finding the right balance between tragedy and humour?
DZ: It’s something that requires intuition and I trusted my gut with it. The films that inspired me growing up often didn’t have a clear delineation between drama and comedy. Some of my favourite moments of comedy are in drama, when it feels right to lighten up the moment and makes the dramatic moments resonate more because they have that balance. That’s something that interests me as a filmmaker—the fine line between comedy and pathos. This film certainly leans more towards the pathos side, but at the same time there are circumstances where it felt right on a gut level to let it breathe a little and embrace that. Tonally it was always important; we never wanted the humour, or any moments of lightness, to be at Kumiko’s expense. She’s such an easy target, and in other hands, it could have gone that way, because she is such a fragile character. We wanted to approach it with a sense of empathy and a sense of humanity, without dipping into sentimentality.
BG: The ambiguity is quite unsettling when you watch it. There are moments when you empathise and there are moments when you think that she has taken this quest to an extra level.
DZ: Yeah. I think it’s partly because it’s from her point of view: she’s on a quest. Things that might be banal to other people could be terrifying to her, and so we wanted to convey everything from her performance and characterisation, through to the cinematography and the sound design, to really put ourselves in her world and then navigate accordingly.
BG: The sound design, in particular, is fantastic, especially as you had a main character who didn’t say a lot. How important was getting the sound right?
DZ: That was a big part of it. Sound design is often an under-utilised tool in filmmaking, and I don’t know why that it is. In some films, it’s not relevant and it depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. In this film, probably because she’s alone so much and I like what sound design can do, it became another filmmaking tool to accentuate a mood or creating certain things. The crucial part of this and the way we do it. My brother (Nathan) does the sound design and we’re working on it concurrently with the editing. In the same way, we’re also working on the score while we’re editing, so everything breathes and you can’t draw the line between the sound design and the score—it all flows together as one cohesive piece instead of packing it all on the end once it’s done.
I think sound design is usually one of the last things done when making a film, and sometimes things are rushed in the end, and it can be an afterthought with some films. It was something we talked about from the beginning and had a tremendous amount of fun with, because compared cost-wise to other aspects of the filmmaking process, it’s really effective and there’s so much to explore. Growing up, I really loved the way sound design was used with the Lucas film projects, with really big overt sound design. However, I’m interested the most in what David Lynch does with sound design, which is more on a visceral level, and is unconventional in the way it conveys certain moods. It’s a lot of fun trying to explore that.
BG: In the film, landscape is really interesting—the cityscapes of Tokyo versus the big horizons of Minnesota—and I guess it’s an obvious differentiation in her world. But is also had an interesting effect: freedom in Minnesota, even it has consequences.
DZ: We didn’t want this to be a talking heads film. We wanted the landscapes to contrast each other and be characters in the film, and really embrace Kumiko’s surroundings and make her part of it. It felt right for the story and the different worlds she’s in. Also on a cinematic and aesthetic level, I want to make films people want to see in the theatre; I wanted to make something that had a cinematic quality. And from her perspective, she’s on an epic quest and we wanted it to resonate with the imagery. That’s why we shot it widescreen and anamorphic.
BG: The sense of alienation in the film seems quite specific to Japanese culture, and particularly life in Tokyo. Was this awareness drawn from personal experience?
DZ: I’ve been there as a tourist. I read as much as an outsider could about the different dynamics of the culture and then took aspects that felt right for this narrative. We wanted to stay true to the culture but we didn’t want to screen Japan via Texan white guys. That was something we were conscious of—using the cultural aspects for the purposes of her background and her story, but also making it relatable on more on a human level. General loneliness and isolation on a human level that people deal with to different degrees, regardless of culture or geographical background.
BG: Do you think it’s necessarily alienating to be alone? There’s an interesting balance with Kumiko—is she dignified in her loneliness, or is she a loner stereotype?
DZ: I think different people to different degrees experience both. Sometimes it’s alienating to be alone, sometimes it’s liberating. A lot of it is a matter of perspective and the individual’s particular needs. That’s why there’s a line in the film about solitude. I think it’s all a matter of perspective.
BG: I was figuring this out in my head as I was watching it: this is her life and you shouldn’t be judging her for her choices, versus the obvious harm she could put herself in by going through with the quest.
DZ: Some of it is the circumstances, her job, and her family dynamic that have alienated her, and the environmental factors that isolate her, but some of it is her own doing and her own make-up. It’s certainly complex as to how much is her own doing and how much is circumstantial.
BG: Her single-mindedness is intriguing and I know that Herzog has been brought up a bit in relation to the film, and there’s certainly a sense of a Herzogian character. Was he an influence?
DZ: Absolutely. He’s probably the biggest influence on me personally. When I came across his work as a teenager, he was really enlightening to me. I love the way he combines naturalism with certain stylisation, in a way I had never seen before. It was unique and particular, and it felt so organic, the way he balances human pathos. It felt so strange and completely natural at the same time, and I love the way he incorporates the landscapes and the environment into his films. My favourite Herzog films are the ones where he has very distinct lead characters, whether it’s Klaus Kinski or Bruno S. I love those performances and the way he used them in those different environments.
BG: Was the ski lift a specific homage?
DZ: We’re never interested in name-checking or anything like that, but I’d be first to say I’m a cinephile, and everything from films to music to personal experiences all play a huge part in the decision-making. It’s very much an intuitive and subconscious process. For the ski lift, on a personal level, I find them incredibly relaxing. It’s also part of my youth—I grew up in Colorado, and being on a ski lift was one of the most relaxing things to be on. It’s funny, when we were filming, some of the crew were terrified of them, but for me, it felt right. That informed the decision-making and how to tell the story of when she arrived in America. For instance, instead of showing a plane landing, the thing I like about airports is the icing of planes. There’s something really beautiful about that, or walking the sky bridge as you exit the gangway into the airport. Elements like that felt right for the film, and for whatever reason, I felt a personal attachment to also.
BG: The reason why I asked about the ski-lift was whether it’s a tip to Stroszek…
DZ: Absolutely. I love that film so much. Stroszek was definitely an influence.
BG: Rinko Kikuchi was key to the film. How did you end up working with her, and how much did her character change with her performance?
DZ: We were particular with what we wanted with the role. It was a big risk as she’s in almost every shot. Everything hinges on that character. So much of her performance is conveyed through facial expression and physicality. After seeing Babel, as well as some other Japanese films that she’d been in, I knew that she’d be perfect for the role, both as an actor performance-wise and in terms of her role choices. We hit it off right away and she understood the sensibility: hitting that fine line between humour and pathos, having empathy with the character, and not straying into sentimentality. She got that right away, and she trusted us. It was very easy and fun working with her.
BG: What’s next?
DZ: I have so many films I want to do. I have a couple of projects and it’s just a matter of which one takes off. I’m really proud of Kumiko and excited to get it out in the world.
MAIN IMAGE: David Zellner, photographed by Chris Ohlson.
Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other