Saturday, June 18, 2011

SFF Review: Norwegian Wood (Tran Anh Hung, 2010)

A cinematic adaptation of Norwegian Wood, the 1987 best-selling novel from Haruki Murakami, has long been anticipated. Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung (Cylco) is the man who has brought the delicate and tragic tale to the life. Norwegian Wood was in contention for the Golden Lion at the 2010 Venice Film Festival but has picked up a few accolades - notably Best Cinematography at the Asian Film Awards and Best Composer for Johnny Greenwood at the Dubai International Film Festival. While the film looks incredible, unfortunately it is one of the few unremarkable experiences of the Sydney Film Festival so far.

Set in the late-60's when Tokyo universities were rife with political unrest, Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a quiet, reclusive student whose deepening relationship with the emotionally fragile Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel) is haunted but fuelled by the spectre of a shared tragedy, the suicide of Watanabe's best friend and Naoko's boyfriend, Kizuki. Caught between Naoko's emotional breakdown and geographical retreat and the expanding and exciting world of his college life, Watanabe's loyalty is tested by his outgoing and sexually active roommate and Midori (Kio Mizuhara), a sexy, enchanting and free spirited girl he meets on campus.

Norwegian Wood's first act is very clunky, consisting of surprisingly un-captivating fragments of Murokami's expansive novel that are quite ineffective in relaying Watanabe's sense of loss, nor building a believable by-chance romantic connection between the grieving friends. This bond is examined more later, but with the exception of one particular lengthy sequence (an impressive acting display from Kikuchi), most of the scenes feature limited dialogue. I think there are some early faults that were never eradicated. I found it difficult to care for the characters because of the sporadic time they share together.

This is essentially the same for Watanabe. Naoko disappears a long period in the middle as Watanabe's interests turn to Midori. His internal conflict; being torn between his attraction to Midori and his eternal love for Naoko is not really convincing, and without this conflict dividing his character and shaping his relationships, I struggled to be captivated. Perhaps it was guilty of being too subtle, even. What this film does quite well, but could have taken much further by making the 1960's student demonstrations more essential to the story, was addressing teenage disillusionment amongst its central protagonists.

Watanabe, Naoko and Midori are at a crossroads where their youthful sexual urges and sense of adventure are met with adult responsibility and mature expectations, both in their dedication to those they care for, and in their sexual performance. For Watanabe, a quiet and reclusive young man, he is simultaneously dealing with the death of his close friend, balancing newfound desires for sexual experimentation and trying to make sense of a blossoming but unattainable, and seemingly doomed first love.

The slow, ponderous pacing of this film allows the viewer to absorb the gorgeous visuals. If there was one highly commendable feature of this film, it is the outstanding cinematography from Mark Lee Ping Bin. If the film reminds you of Wong Kar Wai's sensual masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, it is because Ping was also involved. While Johnny Greenwood's score, which is a collaboration of his own individual work and Can (I knew it!) is fantastic, it often feels out of place and serves as an inconsistently effective accompaniment to the imagery.

While I have no doubt that Murokami's novel is a beautiful, expansive novel of incredible tenderness, beauty and youthful coming-of-age and heartbreak, I didn't think this resulted in an engaging or effective transfer to the screen. As with most cinematic adaptations (including the recent Jane Eyre) large parts of the novel have been quickly skimmed over or left out entirely. Despite not having read the novel, I recognised early on, that this adaptation was comprised of mere fragments of an emotionally rich tale.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (C-)


  1. This is the review i've been waiting for from you Andy and sadly it seems you've agreed with Bonjour Tristesse. This could work in the movies favour of course, my expectations were so high and now they are quite low so perhaps I can enjoy it in peace?

    It is probably my least favourite of the Murakami novels and I think some of the faults you found with the film actually stem from the book or even just us as a western culture not really understanding the Japanese. This is my way of saying maybe they were true to the source material.

  2. Certainly impacting on my reaction to the film is my lack of understanding Japanese culture, which I am sure influences the way these two understand one another, and react.

    But yeah, the emotional involvement isn't there. I wasn't bored, but my interest wavered because I couldn't engage with it. It is very pretty; the cinematography is incredible, but it does seem like a sporadic summary of the novel.

  3. The only reason I wanted to see it was because of Jonny Greenwood's score since I've managed to obtain the soundtrack last year. At least, it gave me an intro of sorts to Can.

  4. First off, Norwegian Wood is one of my favourite books. There is something so captivating about it (even with this very odd segment involving Reiko, that somehow worked in the book but wouldn't work on film), but heartbreakingly melancholy. It is a very different book from Murakami's other work, and it totally makes sense why people always describe it as the 'least unlike Murakami book' he has writen.

    I was so looking forward to watching the film, and the minute I felt that the music and, of course the cinematography, was warping my emotions and making me feel a connection with the characters I didn't have, I knew I was lost.

    The scene in the meadow, however, did make one little tear roll down my face (but then that was because, for the first time ever, I related a book to the film when watching.)

    I don't think it has anything to do with knowing the Japanese culture, though. It's just a film that lacks emotional connections with the characters.

    I wanted to love the film, and I didn't. I did get a lot out of it (music and look wise), and I did like the actors. It's a film that has played around in my head after seeing it, though, and that's because it kind of took me a while to make out what I really did think of it (as I thought it would make my top films of the year list, for sure.)

    As so many have said, it is an unfilmable book, really. I think Hung really did have a go at it, though. And even that is impressive enough for me to commend.

  5. Yeah it seems like we both agree on this one, and it was one I really wanted to love too.

  6. I really enjoyed the book, but I felt as though it was Murakami's more mainstream novels. The book itself was really sad, you find yourself feeling for Watanabe and his pain. I found a similar experience though out the movie. But I mainly just felt sad the entire time, plus they left out some key elements from the book. They captured Watanabe's innocence very well. Depressing movie, obviously not as good as the book.