Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung, 134 mins (15)

The cult author Haruki Murakami? No thanks. And yet I was hoping for great things from this adaptation of one of his best-known novels
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The Independent Culture

I'm curious to know what fans of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami will make of the adaptation of his Norwegian Wood.

Personally, I'm at a loss to know why the book is so revered. It intersperses the hero's clinically described romantic woes with mundane accounts of his daily actions, and enumerations of every last sandwich and beer he consumes. The effect is at once precise and nebulous, and I've never been able to get any purchase on Murakami's book, intellectually or emotionally.

However, I come to this film not as a Murakami reader but as an admirer of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung. His debut The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), about a female servant in 1950s Saigon, was extraordinary – delicate, evocative, unrepentantly an aesthete's film. I was hoping for great things from Norwegian Wood, since Tran's atmospheric hyper-aestheticism seemed a perfect match for Murakami's glazed melancholy. But it is deeply disappointing: sublimely executed yet numb, its gorgeousness verging on the narcoleptic.

The novel starts with the narrator hearing a certain Beatles song and recalling the amours of his distant youth: in other words, he once had a girl, or should I say, she once had him. Tran's version skips this Proustian set-up and begins at the beginning: the hero's boyhood friend Kizuki gasses himself in a car, in an extended take of sumptuous languor. Soon after, as a student in late Sixties Tokyo, hero Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) – oblivious to the political militancy of the milieu – is focused on matters of the heart. He gets involved with Kizuki's old girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), but she then disappears, and turns out to have left for a sanatorium, where she's being treated for some ill-defined mental malaise.

Lovelorn Watanabe visits her in the lushly forested surroundings of the mountain retreat, where the couple take long, beautifully shot walks and hang out with Naoko's confidante, an older woman named Reiko (Reika Kirishima), who serenades the lovers with acoustic Lennon-McCartney.

Watanabe also meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a spunky gamine with a modish wardrobe and sex on the brain (though nowhere as explicitly as in the novel: perhaps Vietnamese sensibilities are more delicate than Japanese).

Whatever else it is, Norwegian Wood strikes me as an authentically youthful film: it dramatises the way adolescents obsessively make high drama out of their relationships. Put simply, it is about a boy who misses out on the really appealing girl (Midori) because he's fixated on a gloomy ideal (Naoko) to whom he's pegged his pallid, doomed-romance fantasies. Moreover, this is one of those stories in which characters, women in particular, are fated to suffer just so that the narrator-observer-hero can learn how to be a man, as in Sophie's Choice or Betty Blue.(In this insipid case, it's more "Betty Pale Blue".)

The prevalent tone of sentimental morbidity is all the more glaring for the coolness of the execution. Perhaps it's because of that cool that the film occasionally makes grand gestures to remind us that we're watching emotionally charged material. An elegant sequence of a zigzagging stroll in the hills culminates in an explosion of histrionics from Naoko: a shame, since it aborts a stretch of lively, nuanced acting from Rinko Kikuchi. Later, when things turn tragic, Watanabe is seen languishing unsheltered and unshaven on a storm-lashed promontory: I briefly hoped that Tran was having a sly laugh at the story's romantic agonies, but no such luck.

The acting is only sometimes involving: the glum, passive Watanabe doesn't give Matsuyama scope to do much but loiter looking wounded. Kikuchi embodies a martyred-cuteness vacancy, and although the role of Midori doesn't offer much beyond seductive larkiness, Kiko Mizuhara's presence always warms the film up.

This is a visually exquisite film, in its abstract way. Many images are genuinely breathtaking: an extreme close-up of a skinny-legged spider, a panorama of forested hills that seems to fold and unfold in 3D as cloud shadows drift over, a distant study of bodies in snow. And Mark Lee Ping Bin has worked up a wider palette of greens than you normally see in cinema.

It's striking for the ear as well: Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood contributes a stark soundtrack that ranges from delicate acoustic guitar to the bleakly monolithic orchestrations familiar from his There Will Be Blood score. It's also smart to include vintage tracks by 1970s experimenters Can: using a German band famous for its Japanese singer chimes nicely with a Japanese drama made by a Vietnamese director raised in France.

In fact, Norwegian Wood doesn't quite feel like a real Japanese film, more a French imagining of one. The world Tran creates is like a virtual Japan, inhabited by infuriatingly shy ghosts. And the film is something of a shy ghost too, politely declining to step out from behind the pale screen of its own sublime reserve.

Next Week:

Romantic melancholy Britcom-style, as Jonathan Romney takes a dive with Richard Ayoade's Submarine