Sunday, 27 March 2011

FILM REVIEW: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood is one of those books that upon closing the last page you're diving to the Internet to see if there's been any word about someone making a film version of it. When I read the book back in 2009 I fell so much in love with it that I wanted a more physical encapsulation of it: I wanted to see the characters living and breathing, twisting and setting themselves into heartbreak. I was delighted to see that a film was in development, and even more overjoyed when it very quietly snuck into the 2010 Venice Film Festival line-up, all complete and ready for viewing. It's only now as it gets a limited release in the UK that I have realised that Norwegian Wood isn't really a book you can translate well onto film. That hasn't stopped director Tran Anh Hung from trying though, and at least making an honest and elegant job of it.

Toru Watanabe is left stunned and devastated by the suicide of his childhood best friend Kizuki. He escapes to the Japanese capital Tokyo to study, and spends all of his time walking and reading ("I don't make the effort to have friends as it just leads to disappointment."). One day he runs into Naoko, Kizuki's girlfriend for the whole of his short life, and the two of them tentatively strike up a friendship which then blossoms into love. But Naoko is suffering much deeper than Watanabe, and one day flees Tokyo and he later discovers she has gone to stay in a respite/mental facility. As he visits her, Watanabe's attachment and "responsibility" for Naoko grows ever stronger, and he dreams of the day she will recover and the two of them can live together. But Naoko is distant and troubled, and back in Tokyo Watanabe is becoming ever friendlier with free-spirited and uninhibited Midori, who longs for Watanabe but is sidelined by his love for Naoko. It's not so much a question of who will he choose, but how he must live when the decisions are made for him.

It's a beautiful book - please read it before you go and see the film (hopefully it will also make you fall in love with Haruki Murakami who is quite frankly, a lyrical genius: see Sputnik Sweetheart, Kafka On The Shore, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle amongst others). The film, whilst staying very faithful to Murakami's words, does tend to mess around with the chronology somewhat and has a very naturalistic but sometimes abrupt way of introducing characters - reading the book beforehand gives you the background and stability to watch the film and understand the context.

The film is also beautiful. Japan has never looked so alluring, so inviting to the UK-bound viewer (I'm going to Japan on my honeymoon in a couple of years, and this made me want to skip the months to get there even faster. For reference, the film was shot in Kamikawa, Hyogo). The change of seasons from lush Spring to powdery Winter was just stunning: Hung has a visual eye to detail that matches Murakami's way with words. It's not just the cinematography and the idyllic landscape that enchants, the whole film is treated in such a sensual evocative way that whilst stirring the soul can also slip occasionally into melodrama. Murakami's book never seems heightened in any way - the story is told through the eyes of Watanabe (an elder Watanabe in-fact, a retrospective the film choose not to use) who is a very detached and monosyllabic protagonist, and so when events happen and are re-told to the reader by him, they are subdued and almost passive. Here, in big cinematic form, they come across as inordinate and well... a bit emo according to the Guardian - and I have to agree.

Not in terms of the music (which was all done by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead - and strikingly melancholic) but just the outpourings of emotion - some scenes were very exorbitant and overkill, but didn't quite reduce me to rolling my eyes and telling the characters to pull themselves together. It has a definite style to it: sensuous, dreamy, wanton - and if you don't like this kind of thing then you ain't gonna like Norwegian Wood. For me there's pathos in the characters that you've read and loved, and a powerful resonance behind each look and movement, so it works.

What let the film down for me was the skirting over subjects and events, and only choosing to explore a few key moments. There's so much to Murakami's book that here things feel rushed or disjointed. The other major issue translating it to film is how much of the book is dominated by Watanabe's voice. In movie form this is constant voice-over, and the problem with voice-over is that you're told about the characters without ever properly getting to know them. I don't think as viewers we get a sense of the bond between Kizuki, Naoko and Watanabe and without reading the book it's hard to grasp onto that sense of responsibility and loneliness Watanabe has. There's also very little of his oddball roommate who provides many of the laughs in the book, and the presence of Nagasawa seems pointless here. And they didn't include the 'hugging in the rain on top of a department store' scene which is a minor point, yes, but personally a bit sad! It's one of my favourite parts in the book.

There's a lot to ruminate about sex and love as well, and some of the dialogue - which is so wistful and poignant in Murakami's voice - does not translate very well to the screen at all, and will no doubt raise some sniggers from the audience (Naoko's pre-occupation with "becoming wet" does get a bit much even for this Murakamian). Many conversations seem stilted as well, like the actors are literally just reading the lines off a page.

Read the book. Enjoy it, enjoy the response it creates. Then go and see the film. Not to scrutinise but to consider and appreciate for what it is. Certainly you won't unless you know what's coming. Sex and suicide, all the women are crazy; but it's a pleasure to look at. Norwegian Wood: cinema's pretty emo.

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