(Warning: This film review contains spoilers, and I really hope you get to see this movie and enjoy it as much as I did.)
A bunny and a VHS copy of Fargo. Those are the closest companions of the young Japanese woman who is the eponymous hero of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. This film tells the story of Kumiko’s quest to find the buried satchel of money depicted in the Coen Brothers' film Fargo. Kumiko’s inability to distinguish between the fictional and the factual leads to an unexpectedly hopeful Sundance film by the Zellner Brothers (it's probably not coincidental that these indie-filmmaking brothers told a story about someone obsessed with a film by one of the most famous sibling filmmaker duos of all time).
Kumiko’s only true “friend” in the film is Bunzo, her pet rabbit who loves ramen noodles. Bunzo sits in her apartment while Kumiko watches (and re-watches and re-watches) Fargo, poring over the film for clues to where the treasure might be in the American wilderness of Minnesota and North Dakota. After a particularly frustrating day at work, Kumiko says goodbye to Bunzo and uses her boss’ company credit card to fly herself to Minnesota. Kumiko asks anyone who will listen to get her to Fargo, jumping her fare from a deaf cab driver as her final desperate act before she finds herself stumbling alone outside through the increasingly cold Minnesota winter.
The hopeless night of Kumiko’s wandering leads to an eerily still morning, where the audience is greeted by a long shot of a pile of snow about the size of a human body, an odd but static fixture against the harsh weather around it. The implication is clear: Kumiko’s foolish quest ended in her lonely death. It's a tragic but believable story. This is where a typical Sundance movie might have ended. What happened, though, was remarkable and set the tone for every other film I saw in Park City.
In a bold and triumphant posture, Kumiko rises out of the snow and confidently walks through the wilderness with a sense of purpose, eventually arriving at the fence line from the film Fargo before digging the briefcase out of the snow and grabbing the money inside. With Bunzo somehow by Kumiko’s side, the two are in a moment of bliss as her quest is at an end.
Although the ending didn’t make “sense,” it spoke with narrative capital-T “Truth” by providing the closure and affirmation of hope that Kumiko (and the audience) desired. It illustrated the point also made by the book and film Life of Pi – that a story should not be judged only on its credibility to a rational viewpoint. The presence of Bunzo at the end indicates the surreality of the moment, but it reflects a shift toward hopeful storytelling I did not expect at Sundance.
Someone could probably make the case that the Zellner Brothers were suggesting that this was her final, crazed dream before death – or, possibly that it was her utopian afterlife. What matters more to me, though, was that they deliberately chose the final shots of the film to be brimming with hope, an ecstatic slap in the face to the sad sensibilities of past Sundance films and a possible harbinger of more hope-filled independent filmmaking in the future.