Film review: Norwegian Wood

Philip Dodd finds arresting beauty in Norwegian Wood, but the novel's interiority is lost on film

March 10, 2011

Credit: Soda Pictures

Norwegian Wood

Directed by Tran Anh Hung

Starring Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Kiko Mizuhara

Released in the UK on 11 March

Coming-of-age novels and films, at least those of men, can seem to be as strict in their habits as any Bach cantata. In Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence's Paul Morel has to navigate between two young women on his road to becoming a man; and in Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, published in Japan in 1987, the adolescent Toru Watanabe is torn between Naoko, the melancholic former girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide, and a modern, urban and apparently more vivacious student, Midori. Norwegian Wood has now been made into a film by Tran Anh Hung, the Vietnamese director whose Cyclo won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

But Norwegian Wood is a contemporary fable, so who chooses whom is a nuanced matter, as is clear in the Beatles song that kickstarts Watanabe's ruminations in the novel: "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." The film is a meditation on who has whom and the costs - on young women and men - of having and being had. This is starker in the film since Tran chooses to diminish the novel's interest in the tumultuous student protests of the 1960s, the period in which the film is set, and omits entirely the retrospective character of the novel, which has Watanabe looking back on his younger self.

But if I am giving the impression that this film is a cinematic version of a European Bildungsroman that would be wrong. The interest of Norwegian Wood is that it is an attempt to produce a coming-of-age film with a self-declared Asian aesthetic.

This is most clear in the film's immersion in nature, and especially water. It was the indelible Bruce Lee who enjoined us to "Be Water, my friend" - and Norwegian Wood takes this invitation to heart. Despite its title, it is a water-filled film. Swimming pools, pellucid streams and storm-tossed seas punctuate the film, as does the sound of rain. Near the film's beginning, Watanabe dives into a swimming pool, and underwater near-collides with a young woman's groin, only to rise from the water to encounter the woman herself - one of the two who will mark his life. Water as flexibility but also as an inability to take a settled shape; water as flood, as passion, but also water as agent of fear and anxiety: Norwegian Wood plays with all these meanings and more.

It is an interesting question how far a Western audience unattuned to the resonance and power of water in Asian cultures (or of wind for that matter: the sounds of wind in this film are more eloquent than the score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) can make sense of this film. This is a very different experience from, say, Zhang Yimou's Hero, which packaged a pre-digested "Chinese-ness" for cinematic export.

The strength and weakness of Norwegian Wood is its fidelity to the spirit of Murakami's novel. The novel is written in the first person, with Watanabe as a passive and introspective young man; and the film tries to conjure up the novel's intimacy through all kinds of devices: close-ups, tableaux, saturated colour and repeated motifs - Watanabe encounters both young women in the swimming pool; there are two snow scenes, one with each woman. It is impossible to miss the repetitions, and anyone confusing this film with a realistic account of growing up in 1960s Japan can blame only themselves.

But for all its cinematic inventiveness, the film never quite finds a convincing way of consistently imagining Watanabe's interiority or that of the two women, or even of the dynamic among them. We are asked to take too much on trust: what drives Naoko's descent into instability and final suicide? How do Midori and her sister look after themselves with a mother who is dead and a father who has gone to find a new life in Uruguay (or that is the story that Midori tells Watanabe). In too many of the scenes, the characters seem as perplexed as us: obliged to look into the middle distance and opine some thoughts on love and life.

For all its intelligence and moments of arresting beauty, for all its sensuousness and its Asian aesthetic, Norwegian Wood has the problems of some art films from Europe, of confusing solemnity with seriousness, glumness with tragedy.

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