With his intuitive penchant for lingering, privileged sensations, Tran Anh Hung would seem to be an inspired choice to film Haruki Murakami’s languid-erotic 1987 bestseller Norwegian Wood, where the eponymous Beatles anthem can have the effect of Proust’s madeleine. When it does come, sung softly in English in a cottage in the pastoral outskirts of Tokyo, the tune quickly brings tears to the eyes of Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), whose private anguish is momentarily alleviated and then unsettled by the pop song’s wistful evocation of ephemeral affairs: “And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown…” With its gentle camera movements and wizardly cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin’s amber light, the moment glows and shivers. It also illustrates, unfortunately, how Tran’s adaptation works most effectively in such impressionistic glances and instants than as an emotional whole, where the swoony aesthetic comes to veer perilously close to postcard art.
Naoko is one side of a sorrowful romantic triangle set against the restless backdrop of Japanese student protests in late 1960s. Untouched by the political turmoil is freshman Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), whose own brand of youthful rebellion boils down to books and inert longing. The missing third side is Kizuki (Kengo Kora), Naoko’s longtime beau and Watanabe’s best friend, whose suicide both damages their already fragile psyches and brings them closer together. Their one night of sex further unmoors Naoko, who retreats to an asylum and leaves Watanabe to shoulder the double whammy of alienation and guilt. Relief and tentative healing enter in the form of Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a bouncy coed whose mischievous ribaldry is meant as the life-affirming sunshine to Naoko’s endless despondent night, though the young protagonist is so inextricably bound to the past that he would rather listlessly crawl into a coastal cave with his mournful regrets than again risk anything with the present.
It’s this passivity that, while thematically attuned to the wry moodiness of Murakami’s novel, frustratingly keeps the characters at arm’s length, short-changing the narrative of its emotional resonance. In that sense, the ideal Murakami screen adaptation may be Jun Ichikawa’s 2004 visualization of Tony Takitani, where the author’s distance was complemented by fastidiously miniaturist filmmaking. By contrast, Tran’s best films (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo) are chastely lush but scarcely rarefied. The camera contemplates Edenic expanses, surging rivers, and snow-carpeted woods with the same tranquil, drifting rhythm, underlined by the hushed notes of dread in Jonny Greenwood’s score, and yet his lush eye often feels peculiarly divorced from the people on screen. Still, even if Norwegian Wood amounts to a gorgeous but lethargic emo ballad, there’s no denying the stately lyricism of its melancholy, where the weight of loss and the unease of romance creep like clouds over endless verdant fields.