Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tran Anh Hung's film of Haruki Murakami's NORWEGIAN WOOD: sex, love, death and responsibility among 1960s Japanese youth

Given how specific is NORWEGIAN WOOD (Noruwei no mori) -- the filmed version by Tran Anh Hung of the novel by Haruki Murakami -- to the time, place and culture of 1960s Japan, TrustMovies found the film remarkably accessible, on all levels. While TM has enjoyed, to various extents, four of the five full-length films Tran has given us so far (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo, The Vertical Ray of the Sun), this latest is by far his best. (Will we ever get the chance to see his 2008 film, I Come With the Rain, a crime thriller with Josh Hartnett and Byung Hun-Lee? This director would not seem at first glance a perfect choice for the thriller genre, so that may account for its non-release here.)

Mr. Tran, shown at left, is well-known for the beauty of place that he and his crews instill into his films. His former three, however, were set in Vietnam, a land and culture quite different from Japan's. Not surprisingly, the beauty in Norwegian Wood, while every bit as visual (nearly tactile), is also tinged with a darkness and an emotion that often roils. This is a hugely arousing and expressive movie, but it is one that never wears out its welcome, so finely attuned is it to the nuances of its characters' feelings.

Though there are seven major characters here, three of these stand out: the young man Watanabe (played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama, above and below) and the two young women with whom he connects, Naoko (played by Rinko Kikuchi, above), and Midori (played by Kiko Mizuhara, below). One of the seven, a suicide, departs early on, though he lingers in word, deed and memory throughout, and his action is to some extent responsible for what happens to some of the others.

Responsibility -- along with sex and love -- is one of the key themes of the film, and how the characters handle their responsibility (or lack of it) in terms of themselves and others is the motor that drives the movie. One of the characters, Nagasawa, is a responsibility-free ladies' man, a condition to which his lover, Hatsumi, must condition herself.

For a time, one of the characters is institutionalized and her caretaker/friend, Reiko takes on a particularly important sense of responsibility. But it is finally Watanabe, above, and his dilemmas that become central. All this takes place as the Japanese student protests of the 60s are being carried out, and our characters are part of this by virtue of having to discover their own place in society and in terms of each other.

As in all Tran's films, nature is ever-present, and the beauty he finds in both the natural world and in the expressive faces and bodies of his actors is often extraordinary. The manner in which he has nature mirror the feelings of his characters is especially so. (The astute and breathtaking cinematography is by Mark Lee Ping Bin, who shot In the Mood for Love, Millennium Mambo and Flowers of Shanghai.)

Both culturally specific and yet easily understandable to those outside that culture, Norwegian Wood is a strange, compelling and believable entrance into the story of youth coming to terms with approaching adulthood. That, of course, makes this film part of the coming-of-age genre, but in its beauty and emotion, it is so much more. Think of it as East meets West. At last.

Norwegian Wood (from Soda Pictures and Red Flag Releasing, 133 minutes) opens this Friday, January 6, at the IFC Center in New York City and at the West End Cinema in Washington DC.  Click here and then click on THEATERS (on the screen's top bar) to see an updated listing of further playdates, cities and theaters.

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