Dir/scr: Tran Anh Hung. Japan. 2010. 133mins


The infinite sadness and sense of mournful longing so beautifully rendered in Haruki Murakami’s bestselling novel Norwegian Wood is captured with beguiling and delicate fashion in Tran Anh Hung’s striking adaptation. Fans of the book and lovers of elegantly staged arthouse cinema will adore its faithfulness to both story and sense of place, though its slow and refined pace may be off-putting for some.

The sheer sense of romance is palpable as Toru and Naoko wander the countryside — whether it be verdant, windswept summer hills or snowy woods — though the underlying sense of loss and torment is never far away.

World premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival, the film’s story of heartbreak, love and longing is absorbingly presented, and should prove a must-have title for film festivals and discerning arthouse distributors all-too aware of the 1987 novel’s fanbase.

The backdrop is Tokyo of the late 1960s as students are starting to rebel, though their campaigning is lost on new student Toru Watanabe (Matsuyama) who is lost in sorrow following the suicide of his best friend Kizuki (Kora). When he meets Kizuki’s long-term girlfriend Naoko (Kikuchi) he is drawn to her troubled sadness and gradually falls in love with her.

On Naoko’s 20th birthday they make love, though he is amazed to find out it her first time. Soon afterwards the beautiful but increasingly tortured Naoko leaves Tokyo for a remote rural retreat to heal her profound sense of loss following Kizuki’s death. Toru follows her and promises to remain loyal until she recovers.

In Tokyo he busies himself with studies and part-time work, but also starts to develop a relationship with the confident, flirtatious  and elegant Midori (the impressive Kiko Mizuhara), despite her boyfriend.

As Naoko grows  ever more tormented by the ghosts of her past, so Toru finds he is forced to make a choice between the two women… he must make the choice between his past and his future.

Writer-director Tran does an impressive job of transferring the textured novel into a poetic and accessible screenplay, but more importantly films in such a lush and beautiful manner that even the slowest of moments are eminently watchable just in a sense of sheer visual delight. He balances the busy sense of claustrophobic Tokyo with the stark visual beauty of Naoko’s rural retreat.

The sheer sense of romance is palpable as Toru and Naoko wander the countryside — whether it be verdant, windswept summer hills or snowy woods — though the underlying sense of loss and torment is never far away, with Rinko Kikuchi (from Babel and The Brothers Bloom) gloomily impressive as the haunted Naoko.

Equally impressive is young Kiko Mizuhara as the enchanting Midori (for some reason often shot in profile), possibly a more difficult role to play as she must balance playful and often surprisingly racy flirtatiousness with a sense of warmth and deep compassion. She is terrific and a young performer to watch.

Though sex plays an important part in the story, the lovemaking sequences — while sweaty and honest — lack the sheer erotic intensity of the book, however this simply reinforces the sheer sense of melodramatic romance which permeates the film.

Another high point is the stunning 1960s costume design by Yen Khe Luguern — for some reason scarves feature prominently throughout the film.

The Beatles’ ballad Norwegian Wood  only receives a couple of plays in the film — once as played and sung on the guitar by Naoko’s doctor/carer Reiko (a charming Reika Kirishima) and again over the end credits, though praise should also go to the evocative score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood).

Production companies: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Fuji Television Network

International sales: Fortissimo Films, www.fortissimofilms.com

Producer: Shinji Ogawa

Executive producers: Masao Teshima, Chihiro Kameyama

Co-executive producers: Michael J Werner, Wouter Barendrecht

Cinematography: Mark Lee Ping Bin

Production designer: Fuminori Ataka

Editor: Mario Battistel

Music: Jonny Greenwood

Main cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Reika Kirishima, Kengo Kora, Eriko Hatsune, Tetsuji Tamayama