Bringing Haruki Murakami's complex and haunting novel "Norwegian Wood" to the screen was probably not an easy task. The book's success had as much to do with (if not more) the poetry of the prose, the creation of a mood. Stylistically, it's a movie that arrives with great expectations. I'm pleased to say that Tran Ahn Hung's melancholy interpretation captures much of the feel of the book and is visually arresting. It is really quite beautiful. Despite its strengths, however, it may not be entirely successful as a stand-alone work. The movie alternately feels intimate AND aloof, filled with passion AND dry in the telling. Every time I felt disconnected with the characters, a moment of brilliance would sweep me back into the story. And every time I was wholeheartedly invested, the narrative reverted to a chilly detachment. In many ways, I'll say that admired "Norwegian Wood" more than I loved it. But it is still a recommendation for what it does well, it does very very well.
At heart, "Norwegian Wood" is a study of loss, coping, and survival. Its characters are irrevocably affected by death and the movie seems to be a lyrical dance with sadness and impending despair. Set in Tokyo of the 1960s, we meet a young man who has escaped his small town existence. He meets a fragile young woman he hasn't seen for years. She was the girlfriend of his best childhood buddy, and the two share an intimacy due to that character's suicide years before. As he tries to navigate his journey into adulthood (his college roommate is a huge influence) he is torn between his current life with new relationships and the troubled girl with whom he shares a past. By commingling themes of death and sex, the screenplay is filled with raw emotion and candor. And there are certainly images and sequences within "Norwegian Wood" that will stick with me.
On the plus side, the film has several incredibly strong elements. Rinko Kikuchi (Oscar nominee for Babel) is stunning and tragic as the object of our hero's affection. The film, from a technical standpoint, is absolutely lovely. The shot compositions, cinematography, and eclectic score help transport the story to the realm of visual poetry. If for no other reason, this makes the film an easy recommendation for arthouse audiences. But as I said, the tone is a bit uneven. In the first hour of the film, we actually get to know very little about the central characters. Some of the peripheral characters are never explored with much depth either, but act as narrative catalysts more than as fully formed individuals. But when the two leads are together, the movie soars to emotional heights that are touching and disturbing. Not a perfect adaptation or a perfect film, "Norwegian Wood" is still a fascinating contemplation of difficult topics. KGHarris, 5/12.
DVD Bonus features: The Making of Norwegian Wood and a feature on the film's premiere at the Venice Film Festival.