Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood

It is the 1960’s, but Toru Watanabe hardly notices. Better suited to the brooding Romantic era, he is too preoccupied with his ardor and the death that haunts the object of his affections to throw bombs at the police. Lushly adapted from the celebrated Haruki Murakami novel, French Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung’s Japanese language Norwegian Wood (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Watanabe’s deep abiding feelings for his best friend Kizuki’s beautiful and sensitive girlfriend will be a constant throughout his formative years. Frankly, Naoki is a bit too sensitive. When Kizuki inexplicably commits suicide, they both take it hard. As they try to support each other in their grief, Watanabe falls profoundly in love with her. Unfortunately, her bereavement gives way to acute depression.

Even though the fragile Naoki cloisters herself in a remote mountain sanitarium, Watanabe remains devotionally faithful to her. He largely sleep-walks through his day-to-day life, only seeing Naoki during brief but intense visits. Then he inadvertently catches the eye of Midori Kobayashi. She is bright, vivacious, and outgoing—all of which Watanabe is ill-equipped to deal with.

While Murakami’s love story is often described in terms of its passion, it is just as much about longing. Tran vividly captures the pattern of tension and release that defines Watanabe’s existence. His screen version also stays faithful to the author’s ambivalence to 1960’s radicalism, privileging the personal over the political. Still, Norwegian capitalizes on the splashy look of the era, featuring Yen Khe Luguern’s mod costumes and distinctive period decors.

Despite her beauty and standing as Japan’s only living Academy Award nominee (for Babel), Rinko Kikuchi had to hard sell Tran to be cast as the fractured Naoko. Yet, she is exquisitely devastating, defining the film with her poignant presence. A big step up for Kenichi Matsuyama in terms of prestige, the Death Note franchise star is also quite convincing, if a bit chilly, as Watanabe. Appealingly saucy, Kiko Mizuhara’s Kobayashi always brings a refreshing dose of energy to the film, while Reika Kirshima provides an engaging grounded center as Naoko’s fellow patient friend, Reiko Ishida. Yet, perhaps the film’s purest emotional turn comes from Eriko Hatsune in a near-cameo as the tragic lover of Watanabe’s elitist former friend.

An unusually refined production, Tran and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin’s arresting use of light and rich, warm hues of color is a pleasure to luxuriate in. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s chamberish string score lacks a distinctive melodic identity, but it nicely suits the film’s spirit (Kirshima’s rendition of the titular Beatles song is also respectably presentable). Forthrightly addressing emotional fervor and loss, Norwegian is a genuinely beautiful film. Highly recommended, it opens this Friday (1/6) in New York at the IFC Center.