David Zellner on fact and fiction in his Sundance award-winning film Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

We talk to the director about the film – based on the true story of a false report – ahead of the screening on Sundance Channel this weekend as part of a TV celebration of the Sundace Film Festival.

American filmmaker David Zellner. Mark Davis / Getty Images
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David Zellner's 2014 film Kumiko the Treasure Hunter will have its Middle East television debut on Saturday as part of Sundance Channel's 10 Days of Sundance season, which begins tonight to mark the latest edition of the renowned annual film festival in Utah.

The movie, based on a misreported true story, stars Rinko Kikuchi – an Oscar nominee for her role in Alejandro G Iñárritu's 2006 film Babel – as Kumiko, a Japanese woman who travels to the United States in search of the buried money that she learns about after watching the 1996 Coen brothers' film Fargo. Kumiko was rumoured to have been obsessed with it after believing the bogus claim in the film's opening caption that it is a true story.

American films set in the Middle East have faced their share of criticism over the years for misrepresenting the local culture. With much of his film set in Japan and most of the dialogue in Japanese, this type of cultural misappropriation was something Zellner, who is American, was keen to avoid.

“Whenever we see films like that in the States, it makes us cringe,” he says.

“We [the filmmakers] are as familiar with Japanese culture as outsiders can be. We’ve travelled there several times as tourists and did as much homework as we could to get the cultural background appropriate when we were constructing the story. We had an entirely Japanese crew in Japan and they guided us.

“The last thing we wanted it to look like was white guys coming over and appropriating the culture, so we were very open to guidance in that way.”

Zellner says his team was not that far off the mark.

“They didn’t have to correct us too much, but the last thing we wanted to do is tell them how it is.

“The really rewarding thing, travelling round the world showing the film, is when people connect to it on a human level – and particularly when Japanese audiences connect to it and appreciate it.”

Zellner admits there were big challenges in making a film largely in a foreign language. “I only know basic [Japanese] phrases for travel,” he says. “It’s difficult whenever you shoot in a different part of the world, and we have heard of western productions having problems shooting in Japan in particular.

“But we did our homework and had a plan. We also adhered to their way of doing things, regarding the crew structure, and worked around the infrastructure they had set up rather than trying to impose our own.

“Everyone knew what we were going for and once you have that, it eliminates a lot of the headaches. We had a really passionate crew in Japan that were dialled into the tone we were going for, even though it was a different type of movie to what they’d done before. Once we’d got that, it was smooth and really fun.

Language and cultural differences were apparent even before the filming process.

“The scariest part was casting, auditioning people in a language you don’t know – plus the acting styles are different in different cultures and countries.”

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is based on a true story of a false news report. Takako Konishi, on whom the movie is based, was found dead wearing a miniskirt and high-heeled boots in the frozen wastes of Minnesota, just days after arriving there from Japan in 2001.

A local cop, played in the movie by Zellner, seems to have started spreading the story that she was searching for the buried money from Fargo, based on a brief conversation he had with her.

This theory has been debunked and put down to a misunderstanding – it seems more likely that the Japanese woman, who was suffering from depression, had come to the area where she died because she had visited it previously with her American boyfriend.

Zellner admits that when he learnt that the Fargo connection was not true, while developing the film, he feared it might derail his project.

“When we first heard about the story, it was presented as 100 per cent fact,” he says. “As we went along, it was basically debunked as an urban myth, which caught us off guard. We wondered if we should reapproach the project entirely – but ultimately, it was the myth that drew us to it.

“Our faithfulness to the source material was to the urban myth. We didn’t want to do some kind of biopic, we felt we could get something more pure this way than by appropriating a real-life story we knew so little about.

“There are a million tragic true-crime stories like that and that wasn’t what drew us to it. It was solely the myth, the quest, the idea of something from the age of exploration taking place in the modern world where there’s not the sense of mystery there once was, where there is no unchartered territory. That was the appeal for us.”

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is on the Sundance Channel at 11pm on Saturday, January 23. The channel is available exclusively on OSN, see www.osn.com for full listings