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‘Norwegian Wood’ a very pretty if sparse place to visit

Norwegian Wood

Directed by Anh Hung Tran

Written by Anh Hung Tran, from the novel by Haruki Murakami

Japan, 2010

Haruki Murakami’s dense novel Norwegian Wood, which derives its title from an enigmatic Beatles song, has been celebrated around the world since its publication some years ago. Typically, the road to adapting any novel to the silver screen is paved with various trappings which, if mishandled, will earn the filmmakers the scorn of movie goers hoping to see faithful representations of their favourite stories. Given Norwegian Wood‘s near universal praise of the highest order, anyone willing to throw themselves into the process of translating that specific piece of literature from page to screen was taking a risk, regardless of how successful already said screenplay writer and director were, even acclaimed Vietnamese filmmaker Anh Hung Tran, known to most for for Scent of the Green Papaya, winner of the Caméra D’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Faced with a steep challenge, he embraced the opportunity in attempt to put his own stamp on the story.

Set in the 1960s, the story circles around episodes of Toru Watanabe’s (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) very early adulthood in and around Tokyo, more specifically the several complicated loves in this period of his. One such girl is the sweet but mentally imbalanced Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), whom he re-acquaints himself with some after the her previous boyfriend inexplicably commits suicide. The blossoming of their relationship requires some time and effort, and whether it is the rush of confused emotions that get the better of them or some other underlying attraction, they hit it off on the girl’s 20th birthday. Soon thereafter, Naoko leaves Watanabe without a word of warning, having been sent to a picturesque clinic (a variety of mental institute, in truth). Back in Tokyo, between Watanabe’s intermittent visits to Naoko and her guardian Reiko (Reika Kirishima), the young man is seduced by the cute, witty, if complicated and hard to get at Midori (Kiko Myzuhara). Watanabe floats between these two offbeat relationships but will eventually have to make the ultimate choice. Who will it be?

‘Anh Hung Tran brings a lyricism to Norwegian Wood which may be difficult for some to digest…

Director Anh Hung Tran brings a lyricism to Norwegian Wood which may be difficult for some to digest. While the overall plot is straightforward, following from point A to B to C and so, each of those individual points is infused with an ambitious cocktail of cinematographic artistry, remarkable aural qualities and psychologically and emotionally complicated relationships . What prevents the film from firing on all cylinders is, oddly enough, how infrequently said relationships hit home in full force. For all its technical merits, which do nevertheless enhance some of the film’s scenes, director Tran somehow manages to keep Norwegian Wood‘s beating heart at bay from the viewers for much of its running time. There is an unexpected, even puzzling austerity which hovers over many of the scenes like an ominous cloud spoiling what would have been a brilliant sunny day. Is this a result of something being lost in translation between a Vietnamese speaking director and a Japanese cast, or do the filmmakers hope that viewers will have to dig a bit deeper before being blanketed by the potentially fascinating rush of juxtaposed emotions which clearly lie somewhere? Somewhere, undoubtedly, but the answer as to where exactly might remain a mystery to many after only a single viewing.

In fairness, one should award credit where credit is due. As previously stated, Norwegian Wood is in many regards blessed with an artistic touch second to none. The director’s camera, how it captures specific shots as well as how it connects them from moment to moment are among the movie’s more intriguing and easily striking qualities. When the camera remains stationary, the images could just as well serve as magnificent wall posters. The colour palettes and level of detail are fantastic, with obvious loving care having gone into representing all the small, specific moments in the everyday lives of the figures that inhabit the world of the movie. Other times Tran pulls out all the stops in filming scenes with as dynamic a camera as possible, employing either very smooth, delicate pans or quick, jittery ones. The ebb and flow dictating the cinematography mirrors that of the emotionally stretched out Watanabe, who sees himself metaphorically swimming without end between two individuals that strike his fancy, each for completely different reasons. The accompanying score, supplied by Jonny Greenwood, is reminiscent of his work for P. T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood a few years ago, and suits Norwegian Wood’s murky tonal waters brilliantly. These intersecting individuals are all difficult to define, displaying a vast array of disparate behaviours, some of which are difficult to predict. Knowing that, the score may suit this film even better than it ever did Blood.

‘…the overall tone succeeds more at distancing the viewer from what these people are experiencing than is does invite the viewer to live it with them…

Perhaps it is due to the very ambiguous nature of the three protagonists that the film fails to ever blanket the viewer which much emotion. Midori constantly engages Watanabe with a constant grin on her face which belies her borderline snotty attitude, indicating that her smile may very well be lackadaisical than anything else. Her definition of love, which she literally provides at one point, is counter to what the vast majority of regular people think of when they speak of love. On the flip side, Naoko, played superbly by Rinko Kikuchi, is, in her own peculiar way, desperate for love, although her desire is terribly confusing given that the memories of her deceased ex-boyfriend haunt her still. Her relationship with Watanabe is plagued by constant forces of push and pull.. Sometimes she wants nothing more than to cuddle under a blanket with him (a difficult proposition seeing as how her clinic does not permit patients to ever be completely alone with outsiders), while other days his presence conflicts and repulses her. Stuck in the middle of this trio is Watanabe, whose simple kindness and plain honesty is seemingly what attracts all these girls to him (there is a third that gets to him near the end). His mere compliance with trying woo one while keeping the other contradicts his gentile facade. Make no mistake, the young man is conflicted, only that his relative youth fails to provide him with any proper guidance. Of the three characters, the mark left by Naoko is the most prominent.

The potential for an unforgettable love story involving unorthodox personalities is ripe for the picking, but never bears fruit. There are moments that spark, such as Watanabe’s first visit to Naoko at the clinic, but the overall tone succeeds more at distancing the viewer from what these people are experiencing more than it does invite the viewer to live it with them. Norwegian Wood still makes for an impressive big screen experience, but one that might very well leave some feeling a bit empty.

Edgar Chaput