PARK CITY, UTAH – A pair of Minnesota-made films are among the most buzzed-about projects in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And as fate would have it, their stories, comically probing the complexities of race, gender and cross-cultural misunderstanding, link them in a kind of thematic double feature.
The campus satire “Dear White People” and the droll art-house adventure “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” both were shot around the Twin Cities last year. Both have sparked intense interest from festivalgoers, selling out hundreds of tickets literally moments after they became available, and playing to packed houses.
Each is a prime example of the indie film ethos. They are small-budget productions with unconventional viewpoints, unconstrained by the easy labels and preconceived expectations of much studio fare.
There’s an icy stream of droll wit in “Kumiko,” shot in Tokyo and the eastern Twin Cities. Austin, Texas, filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner cast Japanese star Rinko Kikuchi (“Pacific Rim,” “Babel”) as a downtrodden Tokyo office worker who becomes obsessed with the film “Fargo.” Snookered by the title card that asserts the Coen brothers crime comedy is a true story, she sets out to find the valise full of ransom money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow.
Her overactive imagination, and a stolen company credit card, lead her to frozen Minnesota and deadpan comic encounters with amiable, bovine Midwesterners who are too nice to tell her she’s crazy. David Zellner plays a Marge Gunderson-like deputy sheriff who takes Kumiko to a Chinese restaurant in hopes that the town’s only Asians can communicate with her.
The film was in development for a decade as the Zellners mounted their own treasure quest for financing. Ultimately, Edina native Jim Burke (“The Descendants”) produced the project.
Because much of the movie was shot in Japan, it did not qualify for “Snowbate” Minnesota production incentives, the Zellners said in an interview. They refused to shoot elsewhere because “no other location would have that feel and root you in that reality,” David Zellner said after the film’s Sundance world premiere. If they had shot elsewhere, Nathan said, they wouldn’t have had crew members who could inform them that the proper regional term for casserole is hot dish.
Kikuchi, a 2007 Oscar nominee for “Babel,” said she committed to the project because of its unique mix of character and story. While her friends in Japan couldn’t believe her subzero weather reports, trudging through face-freezing winds paid off in irreplaceable local color. Plus, she got to sing at the production’s wrap party at Nye’s Polonaise Room. “I loved it so much,” she said, beaming.
The eccentric comedy’s prospects for theatrical release got a big boost when Burke’s longtime filmmaking partner Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”) came aboard as executive producer days before its debut.
“Dear White People,” a college comedy about race and cultural dislocation, explores its theme with a knowing but uneasy directness. First-time writer/director Justin Simien offers a millennial perspective on the black experience, as four minority students seek to find their place on a largely white Ivy League campus (represented by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis).
The cheeky feature, declared “a breakout hit” among this year’s 123 films by the Boston Globe, has been one of the hottest tickets at Sundance, with overflow crowds vying for seats at every screening.
Inspired by a recent spate of blackface parties on campuses nationwide, the film unpacks knotty issues of identity with characters too complex to fit into stereotypical categories. Tessa Thompson (of MTV’s “Veronica Mars” and BBC America’s “Copper”) plays Samantha White, a biracial media-arts major whose campus radio show questions just how post-racial modern America actually is.
Samantha’s own confusion about her status puts her at the apex of an interracial love triangle. Her fellow students include a straight-arrow icon of black upward mobility, a would-be reality-show star with a knack for inciting conflict and a gay brainiac.
The movie reaches back to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” but the film bristles with film-geek references to Bergman, Kubrick and even Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” It’s an optimistic act of cultural diplomacy. Thompson calls it “Black arthouse,” a pointed response to the broad comedies that have long dominated the urban film landscape. Her character, Sam, rolls her eyes at the depiction of black people in Tyler Perry movies, a joke within a joke since Thompson co-starred in Perry’s “For Colored Girls.”
Unlike “Kumiko,” which requires blizzard conditions, “Dear White People” is a summertime story that could be shot just about anywhere. Simien said that he considered alternatives, but Minnesota’s mix of financial incentives and skilled local talent made it the best venue for his debut film.
Thompson, whose father is Marc A. Thompson of the genre-busting New York band Chocolate Genius, said it was appropriate to make the movie in her idol Prince’s hometown, since he’s a pioneer in demolishing ethnic and artistic boundaries. In fact, she said, the high point of the 20-day location shoot was the cast and crew celebration at onetime Prince stomping ground First Avenue.
Simien said he was happy to discover “what a foodie town Minneapolis is. Even the table bread is amazing. I did a lot of stress eating,” he said, grabbing his midriff with both hands. “I put on about 20 pounds of Minneapolis weight. When I got back to L.A. and thought about going out to eat there, I was like, ‘Why bother?’ ”
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186