Norwegian Wood

Written and Directed by: Tran Anh Hung
From a novel by: Haruki Murakami
Music by: Jonny Greenwood
Cinematography by: (Mark) Lee Ping Bin

Vietnamese born filmmaker Tran Anh Hung has long excelled at complex dramas often told from the point of view of social outcasts.  In films like The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) (which was a best foreign film Oscar nominee in 1994), Cyclo (1995), and The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), Tran has shown people living as best they can in oppressive circumstances and often when faced with family tragedies.  Norwegian Wood is Tran’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel, which was inspired by The Beatles’ song of the same name.  The precise meaning of the song is elusive, but John Lennon wrote it while having an affair from his first wife Cynthia.  While the film does not directly concern an extra-marital affair, the opening line of the song “I once had a girl… or should I say, she once had me” aptly describes the ambiguous nature of many of the relationships depicted in the film.

The film starts with a flashback to 1967, where the main character Toru Watanbe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) is at high school with his best friend, and first love, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kengo Kora).  The beautiful opening montage that shows the friends at play soon gives way to an excruciating sequence that shows Kizuki committing suicide by gassing himself with the exhaust from a car.  The rest of the film examines how Kizuki’s death affects Watanbe and Naoko’s relationships with each other and other people.  (Tran’s characters are often emotionally paralysed by the death of a friend or loved one, such as Muni whose mum died when she was very young in Scent and The Cyclo’s dad who died in a cyclo accident.)  From here, the narrative moves forward by about a year to show that Watanbe is now at university in Tokyo.  During this time student protests were sweeping the world, as 1968, and in particular the month of May, became a focal point for students seeking radical social and economic change.  Watanbe is oblivious to these events as he is trying to resolve personal crises that are far removed from broader social events of the time. A stunning series of Steadicam shots shows his almost complete obliviousness to the protests as he enters the university campus as a mass of students march around him.

Watanbe’s adjustment to university life is soon disrupted with the sudden appearance  of Naoko in Tokyo.  On the night of her 20th birthday, Naoko cries uncontrollably as she reveals the inner trauma that Kizuki’s death has caused.  Watanbe immediately comforts her, which then leads to sex,  leaving Naoko even more traumatised.  All of the sex scenes in the film are staged and photographed without any passion, which leaves the characters looking awkward.

Naoko’s inability and / or unwillingness to accept Watanbe’s sexual advances forms the major dramatic arc of the second half of the film.  At about the halfway point, the reason for Naoko’s repression is revealed in a bravura shot that lasts at least three minutes.  The camera follows Watanbe and Naoko as they zigzag down the side of a small hill, with Watanbe hurriedly following as Naoko walks erratically.  Shots that feature Watanbe hurriedly following various women, often with the camera tracking laterally, are repeated throughout the film, but it this example demonstrates the extreme edge of this technique.  Tran has used very long takes to emphasise important plot points before, such as the (roughly) three minute take used to reveal that the husband has stolen the family savings and fled his from his wife in Scent, and the roof top scene that shows The Poet (Tony Leung) stabbing The Handcuff Man to death in Cyclo.

With Watanabe still deeply in love with Naoko, the film moves into its third act where he is (essentially) hit on by Midori; one of his class mates at university.  Midori is the exact opposite of Naoko, as she is extroverted, sexy, and is able to express how she feels and what she wants.  She is, however, another tragic character whose mother died when she was young and who was abandoned by her traumatised father.  Just as Midori’s relationship with Watanbe appears likely to become sexual, she reveals that she is already seeing someone else (which makes one wonder if she represents the “big teaser” from the song Day Tripper).  The ultimate dilemma of the film becomes Watanbe’s inability to fulfil his desire to consummate the relationships with these completely different young women that he is attracted to for different reasons.  This makes the story’s setting in the late 60s to the early 70s deeply ironicironic; given this was supposedly the peak of the sexual revolution and ‘Summer of Love’.  Against this background, Tran tells a story of love, commitment and unfulfilled sexual desire without a hint of eroticism or hedonism.

The look of the film is greatly enhanced by Lee Ping Bin’s widescreen digital cinematography.  Lee has a brilliant record as a cinematographer, including previous work for Wong Kar-Wai on part of In the Mood for Love (2000) and for Hou Hsiao-hsien on Millennium Mambo (2001).  The film recalls the look of late 1960s and early 1970s widescreen films, even though this is achieved using state of the art digital technologies.  About two thirds of the way through, the film beautifully transitions from Summer to Winter, which creates an ominous sense that Naoko’s attempts to cure her ills at a mental health resort will be doomed to fail.  It is the cinematography, including the numerous landscape framings, that makes this change of season so affective.

In previous films, Tran has shown that he is a skilful director of both sound as well as image, which is also evident in this film.  Tran’s films always communicate a strong sense of location through the sound of birds, insects, and elements such as the wind and rain.  These sound effects form a dramatic backdrop to the drama that plays out in the settings.  In an early scene in the film, a university lecturer tells students that nothing is as important as Greek tragedy; the sounds of the weather (like the heavy rain when Watanabe presents Naoko with a birthday cake) acts like an ever-present chorus which adds to the tragic events that play out in many scenes.

Most of the film’s musical score is provided by Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood.  It mainly consists of impressionistic and abstracted electrified noodlings as if a band is tuning up but is yet to break out into  song.  This is pleasant enough, but no individual cues are particularly memorable.  Greenwood may seem an unlikely choice for a Japanese film directed by someone from Vietnam, but Tran previously used Radiohead’s song Creep to chilling effect in Cyclo, which suggests a connection with the band and its members.  The film surprisingly ends with The Beatles’ version of Norwegian Wood, though it only plays over the closing credits, which perhaps means the producers only had to pay a few hundred thousand dollars for the rights.

Norwegian Wood is a beautifully photographed film that takes an astonishingly frank and often overwhelmingly bleak view of the relationships between a young man and two vastly different but equally intriguing young women.  The film demonstrates many of Tran’s previous thematic and stylistic tendencies, so it is a must see for people who have enjoyed his previous works.  This is not a film that can really be enjoyed in a regular sense, but it should be experienced by anyone interested in seeing a filmmaker at least attempt to depict the complexity of human relationships on screen.

Simon Howson

Official Trailer