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Norwegian Wood

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars
Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung has a distinct curiosity about the significance of music, both in everyday life and in cinema. A recurring scene from his gorgeous 2000 film ‘At the Height of Summer’ saw a young couple waking each morning to the strains of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and engaging in a ritualised early-morning ballet of stretches and ablutions. At a pivotal moment in his wistful and agonisingly poignant new work – a thoughtfully abridged adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s lilting 1987 chronicle of late-teen neurosis in 1960s Tokyo – a young woman, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), who’s still traumatised by the suicide of a schoolyard sweetheart, breaks down when a friend casually strums through a rendition of The Beatles’ torch song ‘Norwegian Wood’. The idea that something as ephemeral as a pop song could release a storm cloud of sorrows encapsulates the objectives of this film. It asks: how can we ever really be sure of love without understanding the hidden impulses of others? And what’s the point of love if death’s cruel hand can swipe at any moment?

The film is set during a period of revolutionary upheaval, but Tran does not dwell on context, as if to say that this story transcends all links to broader society. Kenichi Matsuyama plays Watanabe, a bookish student struggling to figure out whether his love of Naoko is born of the need to save her from herself, or whether the suicide of Kizuki (her boyfriend and his best friend) has gifted them with a unique perspective on each other’s fractured emotional state. Much of their anxiety derives from sex, his sense of selfish pleasure-seeking, and her need to explore her own sexual incompetence. Matters get more complex when sex-savvy Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) enters the fray, and Watanabe must weigh up his sense of responsibility against his more base desires.

It’s an unhurried and precise film, but approach it on these terms and you’ll find a sensitive, profoundly perceptive and life-affirming study of what it means to develop a bond with someone else. And as an unblinking portrait of the abject, sometimes self-destructive, almost unendurable distress suffered after the loss of a loved one, the movie recalls no less a masterpiece than Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’.

The performances of the young cast attain an affecting blend of reticence and hope, but it’s Tran’s fastidious technique that nudges the film into the realms of greatness. His prowling Steadicam circles the protagonists from behind curtains and shelves, giving both interior and exterior scenes an added sense of intimacy. His bold use of colour, too, emphasises the volatility of the characters by oscillating between warm browns, fulsome ochres and chilly blues or sharp whites. The swelling Arvo Pärt-like score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood offers subtle hints rather than obvious cues to how we should read these intense situations. But it’s the clever use of Can’s Krautrock tear-jerker ‘Mary, Mary So Contrary’ that best captures the mood of this remarkable and devastating work.
Written by David Jenkins

Release Details

  • Rated:15
  • Release date:Friday 11 March 2011
  • Duration:128 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Tran Anh Hung
  • Screenwriter:Haruki Murakami
  • Cast:
    • Kenichi Matsuyama
    • Rinko Kikuchi
    • Kiko Mizuhara
    • Kengo Kora
    • Reika Kirishima
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