Directed by Tran Anh Hung
Starring Ken’ichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi
Set during the revolutionary upheaval of the 1960’s, Norwegian Wood like the 1987 novel from which is adapted, is set in the post-teen world of university, of sweetly doomed love affairs, of vinyl records and the writing of love letters. Watanabe is at university and by chance runs into Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend who has suicided the previous year, for reasons unexplained. So begins their love story. After they sleep together for the first time, Naoko immediately withdraws and spends the rest of the film at a sanatorium, recovering from a breakdown and trying to overcome the pain of her loss. As the narrator says towards the end of the film, ‘The grief over the death of a loved one is something that can never be healed. We can only live with the sorrow and learn something out of it. To love someone deeply. To live strongly.’ Watanabe is devoted to Naoko but also finds himself attracted to the confident and vivacious Midori who is the antithesis to the brooding and unstable Naoko. Yet even Midori has her darknesses, asking Watanabe to take her to a porn film after she experiences heartbreak.
The film, like the novel, is a slow burner. It revels in a dark, erotically charged sensuality and the two main characters, Watanabe and Naoko bound in their mutual grief, share a bereft view of life, as though they had made a suicide pact which has left them alive. Yet for all its earnestness it somehow falls flat, and it is hard to decide what element is missing. The film itself is stunning with photography by Ping Bin Lee. Likewise the performances by lead actor Ken’ichi Matsuyama and actress Rinko Kikuchi are faultless. Matsuyama brings such a subtlety of emotion to the screen, doing so much with very little. Matsuyama and Kikuchi’s performances are only strengthened by the great supporting cast. The soundtrack is also incredible, having been composed by the brilliant Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame.
So what is there to not like? For starters the film is too long. There were many instances where I felt the film needed to find resolution and draw to a close, yet it just kept going. Perhaps because the film seems overly conscious of the novel, it often felt like a visual summary of the text. Or perhaps it is just that the stillness of the film, in comparison to the dark eroticism of its narrative, collapses under the weight of all that it is trying to say. At times I felt as though I could not engage with the characters but could only observe from a safe emotional distance. At others I felt deeply involved, as though I was at the interior of their emotional worlds. But by the end I felt no longer implicated in what happened to them, I no longer cared. Undoubtedly brilliant from a technical point of view, the film offers an audiovisual treat that is delicious. But taking the audience to the brink of emotional endurance makes this film gruelling and painful and by the end you are just like the characters, gagging for a painless and swift exit from it all.