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December 22, 2011

Norwegian Wood

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Noruwei no mori
Tran Anh Hung - 2010
Soda Pictures Region 2 DVD

Probably the biggest problem with translating Haruki Murakami's novel into a film is that it is bursting with imagery. And the film that I imagined wasn't the film that Tran Anh Hung made. Which in turn leads to the questions of what is a filmmaker's responsibility when adapting a novel to film, and also what should the expectations be of the audience, especially those who have read the source novel.

If you haven't read Murakami's novel, I can't recommend it enough. It is, of the several novels I have read by him, his most conventional in structure and most realistic. A look back at the end of the Sixties, it is about a young man, Watanabe, trying to navigate his way though the turmoil of the times, with student protests and concurrent cultural shifts, and his personal relationships from the past. Those past relationships are in the form of his best friend, Kizuki, who committed suicide during their last year of high school for no apparent reason, and Kikuchi's girl friend, Naoko, who unexpectedly shows up in Tokyo, where Watanabe is now studying. Losing her virginity to Watanabe on the night of her 20th birthday, Naoko's attachment to the memory of Kizuki is so great that she withdraws from life, living in a secluded psychiatric facility in the mountains. Watanabe attracts the attention of Midori, a fellow student who's willing to give Watanabe the space to figure a few things out for himself.

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The title is from the Beatles' song, perhaps chosen by Murakami because its brief narrative is about an awkwardly handled relationship. What the film doesn't convey, and what makes Murakami's novels fun to read, are the loaded cultural references. Not just music, but also the many literary references. There is a very nice passage in the novel, relayed in the first person by Watanabe, about bonding with a friend over their share enthusiasm for F. Scott Fitzgerald. For me, the biggest loss in the film version of Norwegian Wood was the lack of cultural references, especially knowing that when I went to college at about the same time that the film takes place, all we would talk about is film, literature and music, especially music.

Even though the film comes across as a stripped down version of the novel, there are still reasons to appreciate what's on the screen. It is also worth remarking that the film stands as a very coherent work considering it was made by an international cast and crew, under the direction of French-Vietnamese Tran. Barely speaking above a whisper, Rinko Kikuchi, is who imagined as Naoko. Kikuchi has never failed to command audience attention, especially since her role in Babel, and convinces as a younger woman, just out of her teens, totally vulnerable, only able to protect herself by withdrawing into a shell that offers little protection. The other nice discovery is Asian-American model Kiko Mizuhara as Midori, with her expressive eyes and full lips. As can be expected from his previous work, cinematographer Mark Lee is unerring in his choice of compositions. Certainly, if the opportunity arises, see this film theatrically, but one of the highlights of the "Making of" DVD supplement shows Lee setting up an elaborate tracking shot in the snow. For a film with the title of a Beatles' song, much of the period music is from Can, with also a Doors' song, "Indian Summer", all integrated with a score composed by Jonny Greenwood, that ranges from guitar solos to full orchestral soundtrack. For those interested, I very much also recommend another adaptation of Haruki Murakami, Jun Ichikawa's film of Tony Takitani.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 22, 2011 07:46 AM