"I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me..."
“Norwegian Wood,” a sweet-sounding name referring to the 1960s Beatles song, an invitation to travel far, to melancholy, and irresolute love.
A particular song too, because it was the first in the history of pop music to use the sitar, using interpenetration of sounds, calling the East despite the mysterious Scandinavian title.
Novelist Haruki Murakami chose this title for a story of love and death, and loss of innocence for his protagonist, Watanabe. Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation of “Norwegian Wood” (Noruwei no mori) is faithful to the spirit of the book, simply leaving aside minor characters that appear more or less in the film.
In Tokyo during the late 1960s, Kizuka, Watanabe’s best friend, commits suicide. Watanabe leaves Kobe and moves to Tokyo to start university. While everywhere else in the world students are rebelling against institutions, Watanabe’s life, too, is turned upside down when he meets Naoko, Kizuka’s former girlfriend. A fragile and introverted character, Naoko has not yet recovered from Kizuka’s death. Naoko and Watanabe spend Sundays together and on the evening of Naoko’s 20th birthday, they make love. But the next day she disappears without leaving a trace. Watanabe’s life stalls after the inexplicable loss of his first love. When he finally receives a letter from Naoko, he has just met Midori, a beautiful, funny and lively girl, who’s just waiting to give him her love.
The main topics remain the shaping of personality through the uncertainty of love, the pain of losing a loved one, the miracle of the return to life after bereavement. Haruki Murakami is a writer who is at a crossroads of cultures. Having lived in southern Europe (Greece, Italy) and the United States, his work is heavily influenced by Western culture. This gives his writing an international draw with references to global popular culture, while retaining a significant Japanese feel through his characters’ emotions. The novel “Norwegian Wood” sold over ten million copies in Japan and three million internationally. It has been published in 36 countries and translated into 33 languages.
Despite this universal success, I couldn’t have imagined this novel being adapted to the screen. The action is quite minimal, and it is above all the characters’ feelings and emotions that constitute the raw material of the book. In other words, Tran Anh Hung had to find a cinematic equivalent to create that emotion, a task made more difficult with the Japanese mentality and social codes being so particular and difficult to understand for someone who is not born in the land of the Rising Sun.
Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation is therefore a tour de force. A filmmaker of mixed Vietnamese and French culture, he is has only made 5 films in 20 years. Since The Smell of Green Papaya (L’odeur de la papaye verte), he has developed an unparalleled aesthetic languor which does not detract from the vitality of his characters and his story. Norwegian Wood is a total success, portraying perfectly the complex relationships between the main characters, and enriching Murakami’s world through precise picture composition, framing and camera movement.
Tran Anh Hung Tran chose to work again with his director of photography from At the Height of Summer (A la verticale de l’été), Mark Lee Ping Bing, who was also Director of photography of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai, Millennium Mambo). We find the same delicacy in the way the camera slides through the film, with colors and filters perfectly matching the seasons and the character’s moods. His way of moving the camera and creating a picture gives a feeling of instability and buoyancy that expresses deep concerns about the fragility of life.
This film is also a family affair for Tran Anh Hung, whose wife worked as the decorator and costume designer of the film. She was also the lead actress of The Scent of Green Papaya and all Tran Anh Hung’s movies except this one. She plays a more or less formal role as artistic director, and certainly gives the film a sensibility that transcends the masculine / feminine divide.
The music for Norwegian Wood was written by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who also composed the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson in 2007. It has a depth and tone that makes it stand out from what we hear in other films. It fits perfectly in this romantic story, crossing a dark beauty, a story where the characters are often thrown into psychological states and complex dilemmas that cause great mental anguish. The score leaves its mark, especially the long piece he did for the scene of mourning on the shore. Just like the movie, this “scene at the sea” takes everything in its path, but leaves us strangely calm. The healing after the fury; life after chaos.
© FIPRESCI 2011