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Norwegian Wood

Theatrical Review

Red Flag Releasing; 133 minutes

Director: Anh Hung Tran

Written by on January 7, 2012 

In Anh Hung Tran’s adaptation of the beloved Haruki Murakami novel Norwegian Wood, the French-Vietnamese director attempts a bold feat: to transform the lyrical language of one of Japan’s most acclaimed contemporary authors into a big screen love song. While some will be quick to dismiss the notion of adapting a book this layered into a film as impossible or irrelevant, there is a certain fascination in seeing Murakmai’s world of nostalgia come to life. The collaboration may seem like an odd fit, especially for anyone whose seen Tran’s previous work, I Come With the Rain a neo-noir film starring Josh Hartnett, as well as his other films (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo, The Vertical Ray of the Sun), which mainly have focused on life in Vietnam. Yet the filmmaker is still able to conjure a quiet mood that is appropriate to the tone of Murakami but ends up feeling more perfunctory than profound.

The story of Norwegian Wood centers on Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a quiet college student living in the revolutionary times of 1960s Tokyo. After his best friend Kizuki inexplicably commits suicide, it sends a ripple of pain throughout Watanabe’s life that causes an endless reflection on life and death for the young man. Along his existential journey, he encounters two very different females that he is attracted to and influence his life. Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), the ex-girlfriend of Kizuki, who has fallen victim to a deep state of depression and Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) an outgoing classmate who exemplifies the opposite traits of Naoko with her personality. As the bi-polar love affair continues to unfold, Watanabe finds himself lost in an ever-present sense of detachment from the two women he yearns to love yet doesn’t know why. On the surface the plot almost seems like a soap opera but it’s Murakami’s examination of reflecting on the past that makes his story so poignant, a trait which is for the most part is carried throughout the film.

The main problem that this adaption encounters is in its uneven pacing that often grinds scenes to a standstill. While some moments are elegant and graceful, others feel unbalanced and bewildering giving an overall sense that not enough is happening to hold your interest. The whole protesting movement and rebellion politics is glossed over and merely background noise while the love story elements hits all the key moments from the book, but is never able to capture attachment you should be having to some of these characters. Everything feels distant and out of focus, while shots meant to stylize the overall poetic tone of the film come off stilted and disingenuous. The performance by Matsuyama also leaves little to be desired, often times looking bored and tired of playing the same one note. The performances of Kikuchi and Mizuhara are more convincing though some of the heavy depression notes feel a tad over-embellished.

And then there’s Radiohead’s gifted instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood who offers up another film score following his well-received previous score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. For some, this score might be the only reason this film is even on your radar. Instead of an overly intense cacophony of strings, Greenwood keeps his compositions calm offering a gentle texture of mysterious allure. But it’s not enough to give Norwegian Wood the cinematic pull needed to fully cover the depth of themes that Murakami evokes with his writing.

Norwegian Wood is now in limited release.


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