The poet Rilke said, “There is only one journey. Going inside yourself. Here something blooms; from out of a silent crevice an unknowing weed emerges singing into existence.” The unknowing weed takes its time to sing but sing it does in director Anh Dung Tran’s film Norwegian Wood, his first since “Vertical Ray of the Sun” in 2000. Based on the best-selling 1987 novel of Haruki Murikami (which I haven’t read), the film reflects the inner journey of 19 year-old Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a journey that embodies the pain of love and loss, the tantalizing embrace of death, the end of dreams, and the beginning of adult responsibility.
Scored by Jonny Greenwood with some narration by Watanabe, the film takes place in Tokyo in 1967 in the midst of student protests against the War in Vietnam. Trying to ease the pain of the shattering loss of Kizuki (Kengo Kora), a close friend from high school, Watanabe immerses himself in his studies at school where he is majoring in drama and, with Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), an older and more experienced friend, is able to release his tension by going to bars and picking up girls for sex. Things change, however, when Kizuki’s former girlfriend, the beautiful but emotionally fragile Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), shows up in Tokyo and reaches out to Watanabe for consolation. Though their language is exceedingly frank and sexually explicit, it is vital to understanding the characters and never used to titillate.
Their deepening relationship, however, only brings the feelings of loss closer to the surface and Naoko’s ensuing emotional breakdown causes her to leave Tokyo for psychological rehabilitation at a mountain retreat where she is only able to see Watanabe intermittently. Even on occasional meetings, however, they embrace a dark ecstasy that inures them, at least temporarily, from their mutual grief, but when Naoko’s roommate, music teacher Reiko (Reika Kirishima), sings the Lennon and McCartney song “Norwegian Wood” at Naoko’s 20th birthday party, the line “and when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown,” evokes tears that flow naturally.
Paralyzed by her sadness and feelings of responsibility for Kizuki’s death, Naoko sinks deeper into despair and Watanabe’s vows of lifelong fidelity are compromised by his attraction to Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a smart, outgoing student who also has had to overcome a troubled past. Norwegian Wood is not a film about “teenage angst,” or any other of the favorite catch phrases that substitute for empathy, but about the essence of life itself and the anguish of having to let go of attachments. More of a tone poem than a free-flowing narrative, the film creates an indelible experience of both exquisite beauty and aching pain, perhaps two sides of the same coin. Like the under-appreciated “Tony Takitani,” another film based on a story by Murakami, Norwegian Wood unfolds like a dream, evoking a mood of serenity and contemplation.
Supported by the stunning cinematography of Ping Bin Lee, much of the film’s power takes place in the silences that allow us to simply observe the sublime beauty of the countryside, its forests, waterfalls, and the purity of its winter landscapes. While some may try, the film’s emotional roller coaster cannot be filtered out and, in the process of assimilating it, it builds a quiet power that ensnares us and leaves us to explore its meanings long after the final credits. In spite of those who want to attach the label of “boring” to every film that moves slowly and requires concentration, Norwegian Wood will be remembered as one of Hung’s best films and a work that brought cinema to a new level of artistic achievement.