Adapted from Murakami Haruki‘s fifth novel, Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no mori), by director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Vertical Rays of the Sun) explores the trauma of a friend’s suicide. Kizuki (Kôra Kengo and his girlfriend Naoko (Kikuchi Rinko [Babel]) had been bosom buddies since childhood into high school. Another friend of the two, (sometimes narrator) Watanabe (Matsuyama Ken’ichi) went off to Tokyo University. By chance Watanabe and Naoko meet amidst political turbulence in Tokyo of the late 1960s and have sex on Naoko’s twentieth birthday, after which she checks herself into a secluded mountain sanatorium (deeply depressed, she does not want to follow Kizuki into death).
Watanabe meets another girl, Midori (Mizuhara Kiko), who is quite vivacious and self-confident. Delighted as he is by Midori, he continues to visit Naoko and to entertain the notion that he belongs with/to her. (After their first kiss, Midori tells him she has a boyfriend.) There is yet another blocked romance for Watanabe with Naoko’s sanitarium friend Reiko (Kirishima Reika) who both sings and plays Naoko’s favorite song, “Norwegian Wood” for the visiting Watanabe and Naoko.
Rather than a Beatles or Beatles-inflected soundtrack (though the title song is the original Beatles’ recording), the movie has an overly insistent (intrusive) one by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. The framing of shots by cinematographer Lee Piun-Bing also calls attention to itself along with quite gorgeous colors. Especially in the last third of the movie, beautiful images (especially falling snow) all but supplant the rather wooden performances of listless characters in a turgid, long (133-minute) tale of frustrated love that retained none of Murakami’s humor, any of the older Watanabe’s perspective in the novel, or any of Watanabe’s occasional youthful relations.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray