REVIEW: Meticulous Murakami Adaptation Norwegian Wood Does Everything Right, and Still, We Snooze
Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood is meticulously faithful to the book it’s based on, Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel of the same name: It takes no significant liberties with the plot, and it captures the novel’s delicate, half-hopeful, half-mournful tone. So why, unlike its source material, does it feel only half-alive? It’s so easy, too easy, to get lost in the book-vs.-movie debate. But a movie like Norwegian Wood is a peculiar case – its intentions are sterling, and it’s hard to pinpoint any technical flaws. The problem, maybe, is that it’s trying too hard; Tran has such firm control over the storytelling that the resulting picture has no room to breathe.
Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is an aimless young university student in late-1960s Tokyo. His closest friend, Kizuki, committed suicide at age 17, leaving behind his childhood love, the fragile Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, the Japanese actress who made a splash in the 2006 Babel). Watanabe “inherits” the friendship of Naoko, and it seems that the two might fall in love. But Naoko disappears – the intensity of the blossoming relationship is too much for her, sexually and emotionally, and she enters a retreat-like sanitorium in the country. Though Watanabe continues, sweetly, to pine for her, he also starts tagging along with his more sexually adventurous roommate, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama). He also embarks on a fledgling friendship with another student, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) ,who, unlike Naoko, seems boldly certain about what she wants out of life.
She is, perhaps, a little too bold for Watanabe: She outlines her idea of the ideal lover (essentially, a man who will be at her beck and call, so she can then turn him away). And she informs him that she already has a boyfriend, anyway. Watanabe continues to visit Naoko in her forest retreat, though his time with her is nearly always supervised by Noako’s half-protective, half-possessive roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima). The rest of Norwegian Wood outlines the rather delicate dance between the things Watanabe might think he wants and the things he may actually be able to have.
Tran adapted the screenplay himself, with obvious care and precision (though the resulting movie doesn’t do much to address, as Murakami’s novel did, the social unrest among young people in late-‘60s Tokyo). His actors have plenty of moments of grace and subtlety, particularly Kikuchi – somehow, she makes us see a deeply troubled soul in Naoko, not just a wan, self-absorbed victim of circumstance. And there isn’t a single frame in Norwegian Wood that isn’t gorgeous to look at: The cinematographer is Mark Lee Ping Bin, who also shot In the Mood for Love (sharing credit with Kwan Pung-Leung and Christopher Doyle), and every inch of the movie’s surface fairly glows.
Or, rather, every millimeter glows -- the picture creeps along at a very leisurely pace, which shouldn’t by itself be a problem. Norwegian Wood is Tran’s fifth feature. (The director, who was born in Vietnam and who lives in Paris, is perhaps best known for the 1993 The Scent of Green Papaya.) I kept watching Norwegian Wood waiting for that pleasant, wide-awake state of hypnosis to kick in, the slipstream effect that a well-constructed, slow-moving picture sets into gear. But for reasons that are hard to pinpoint, Norwegian Wood seems to be hampered by its own integrity; it’s like a ghost wearing a trailing nightie that’s just too long. Would the movie be more effective if every lingering shot were cut by just a second or two, or if the dialogue between characters had just a little more energy and crackle? Maybe. But whatever it is that’s wrong with Norwegian Wood couldn’t possibly be remedied by any quick fix. That’s both its tragedy and its virtue.