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Tran Anh Hung's "Norwegian Wood"

Critics will grant Tran his beautiful moments, but they'll also argue that they don't add up.
The DailyNorwegian Wood

"With his intuitive penchant for lingering, privileged sensations, Tran Anh Hung would seem to be an inspired choice to film Haruki Murakami's languid-erotic 1987 bestseller Norwegian Wood, where the eponymous Beatles anthem can have the effect of Proust's madeleine," writes Fernando F Croce in Slant. "When it does come, sung softly in English in a cottage in the pastoral outskirts of Tokyo, the tune quickly brings tears to the eyes of Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), whose private anguish is momentarily alleviated and then unsettled by the pop song's wistful evocation of ephemeral affairs: 'And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown…' With its gentle camera movements and wizardly cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin's amber light, the moment glows and shivers. It also illustrates, unfortunately, how Tran's adaptation works most effectively in such impressionistic glances and instants than as an emotional whole, where the swoony aesthetic comes to veer perilously close to postcard art."

At the AV Club, Sam Adams finds Norwegian Wood to be "a beauteous, lukewarm bore. Frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien cinematographer Lee Ping Bin, who also shot In the Mood for Love and Tran's Vertical Ray of the Sun, gives the images a gloomy luster, as if the entire film were shot on a crisp, damp autumn day. But Tran's visual precision is betrayed by his jumbled script, which fails to impose a cinematic structure on the source material."

Mark Holcomb outlines the story in the Voice: "Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), a teenage college student in 1967 Tokyo, struggles with the numbing grief of his best friend's suicide and his emerging feelings for both the boy's fragile girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), and mercurial fellow student Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). Naoko retreats to a remote sanitarium, where Watanabe visits her periodically over the next couple of years and becomes involved with her thirtysomething roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima). If the backdrop of late-60s political friction and Watanabe's telling indifference to it are what Hung captures best from Murakami's story, his characterization of Reiko is where he stumbles worst."

Norwegian Wood

"Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya) doesn't skimp on the book's 60s nostalgia, playing up the funky period fashions and retro-future decor," writes David Fear in Time Out New York. "[T]hose who share his love of languid lushness will appreciate luxuriating in long stretches of beauty for its own sake. As a chronicle of grief and passion, however, the film is perilously close to being an exercise in tactile but touchy-feely passive-aggression."

More from Stephen Holden (New York Times), James Marsh (Twitch), Laura Minor (Cinespect), Elina Mishuris (L), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6.5/10). Earlier: Reviews from Venice and Toronto.

Dustin Chang interviews Tran for Twitch:

I was always wandering about the fact that there are only 5 Tran Anh Hung movies in the last 20 years! Obviously not enough for your fans! What was the project that fell apart? If you don't mind me asking.

It was a great book called Night Dogs by Kent Anderson, about a Vietnam vet, set in 1975, Portland, Oregon. After I read the book, one of those eureka moments happened. I got up one morning and my head was filled with Jimi Hendrix songs. (Claps his hands) Bang! I really wanted to use about 11 Jimi Hendrix songs for that adaptation. It would've been great. It had Adrien Brody, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Harvey Keitel attached...

What happened?

Well, Adrien Brody won the Oscar and didn't want to do it anymore. (Laughs) Actually it was more complicated than that….

Norwegian Wood opens today at the IFC Center in New York, then on January 20 at the Music Box in Chicago. See the site for further cities and dates.

Update, 1/7: Tran's a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show.

Update, 1/8: Viewing (4'14"). Filmmaker's Scott Macaulay interviews Tran.

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The film, indeed, lacks some emotional structure, I could hardly sympathize with the characters, specially Naoko. Also, the film is too “clean”: the book talks about guys masturbating and about the crazy Midori’s sex dreams all the time. There is dirt and laziness and grey all over the book, and the intention to make a good-looking movie broke with that ambientation. At last, it’s ok to chose to not focus on Reiko’s problems, but then the last scene between her and Toru should totally be excluded, because it doesn’t make any emotional sense. It’s a watchable film, only.

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