Show Hide image

Norwegian Wood (15)

Ryan Gilbey on a fittingly understated adaptation of Haruki Murakami.

Norwegian Wood (15)
dir: Tran Anh Hung

Norwegian Wood must be the first instance of a composer being given equal billing with a director on a film poster. Jonny Greenwood has only two previous scores to his name, but since one of those was his abrasive work for There Will Be Blood and he also happens to be a member of Radiohead, the fanfare is understandable. Greenwood's contributions here, which favour shimmering guitars and sympathetic cellos, with discordant string crescendos enlisted in times of crisis, are perfectly hypnotic. For the most part, the Vietnamese film-maker Tran Anh Hung (who used Radiohead's song "Creep" to brutal effect in his 1995 film, Cyclo) prioritises birdsong, whispering grass, even ­silence. It's an appropriately subdued accompaniment for a picture in which so many things almost happen.

Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), a 19-year-old student in Tokyo in the late 1960s, is besotted with Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who was dating their mutual friend, Kizuki (Kengo Kôra), before his suicide. "I think people should just go back and forth between 18 and 19," Naoko sighs on her 20th birthday, evoking the state in which Kizuki is forever suspended while arguing for her own emotional limbo. She manages not to cry, just about. In a beautiful effect, proxy tears stream down the window pane behind her.

We wonder if Watanabe will throw in his lot with this fragile creature. The camera keeps catching him in moments of dynamic action, tearing across a swimming pool or storming along campus corridors and factory floors. His love life, on the other hand, is stationary. The tension between movement and stasis is expressed in the film's most inspired scene, an unbroken five-minute take in which Naoko explains frankly the reasons her love for Kizuki went unconsummated. It's the sort of conversation best suited to a late-night bedroom strewn with tea lights and joss sticks. Tran ­instead lends it a surging energy by having Watanabe pursue Naoko as she charges through long, lush grass, reeling off the delicate details of her confessional as she goes.

Another young woman, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), offers Watanabe the prospect of ­excitement and vitality. If you should find yourself passing below Midori's apartment, I would advise carrying an umbrella. She wants a man, she says, who will dash out for a strawberry cheesecake when she asks for one, and will not only stint on the complaints if she flings it out of the window once he has brought it breathlessly to her, but will accept the blame for not having anticipated her every whim. Could Watanabe tolerate such reckless regard for the common dessert?

It's a risk in any story of romantic quandaries that the viewer will be moved to offer tender counsel to the lovelorn hero, something along the lines of: "Ditch the moody one and go party with Ms Cheesecake, you berk!" The movie partially allays that response by always associating Naoko, who is convalescing in a rural sanatorium, with its most verdant and visually delicious landscapes, so that the eye is constantly pleased to see her again, even if the heart sinks a little.

Norwegian Wood, adapted from Haruki Murakami's novel of the same name, is as notable for what it doesn't do as for what it does. A period piece set at a time of unrest, it keeps politics largely off-screen, retro chic to a minimum (a pair of flares, some plaid) and resists the temptation to go all TOTP2 in its song choices: there is a handful of Can numbers and only one use of the original, Beatles version of the title song. (That alone must have consumed 97 per cent of the budget.)

One of the reasons the movie doesn't become a Forrest Gump-style carnival of nostalgia is because it can't, having cost scarcely more to make than a few of those boxes of chocolates Forrest jabbered on about. But the air of insularity is also true to the material. The world may be changing but Watanabe is wrapped up in his own problems: stay faithful to a past which could destroy him, or plough on into the uncertain future? It's a poser for him, if not for us. With a director as sensuous as Tran, we get to have our strawberry cheesecake and eat it, too.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?