No other Vietnamese filmmaker has come close to matching the critical and commercial success that greeted the films of Anh Hung Tran. With his first two pictures, Tran earned Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion prize, the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival and a César.
Every new project of his has become an event; none though bigger than his latest film, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami sole realist (and biggest-selling) novel, “Norwegian Wood.”
A moving, melancholic love story set at the peak of the civil unrest in Japan at the end of the 60s, Tran’s film sidesteps few elements, characters and back-stories but remains largely faithful to the source novel.
I sat down with Tran to discuss the various factors that went into the making of “Norwegian Wood,”
“Why ‘Norwegian Wood’?” I asked him.
“I just loved the book, as simple as that,” Tran replied. “I read it in 1994 and I was deeply moved by it. I had the feeling that it would give me an opportunity to work out something special, a different cinematic language. What I experienced with Murakami’s book is something I haven’t experienced before in other books. The level of intimacy between the reader and Murakami’s book took me aback.”
“Norwegian Wood” is the first film adaptation of a Murakami novel. For decades, Murakami has been reluctant to have his work adapted to the big screen. In addition to a handful of shorts, only two features based on short stories of his were made into film: Jun Ichikawa’s well-regarded “Tony Takitani” (2004) and Kazuki Ohmori’s critically drubbed “Hear the Wind Sing” (1980).
“It wasn’t that complicated to persuade Murakami to do ‘Norwegian Wood,’” Tran said. “The process was long, and Murakami was actually waiting most of the time for contracts to be finalized. When I first met with him, the only things he wanted to see were the script and the budget. Before I started writing the script, I spent six month talking with my producer about different agreements and then it took more time for me to write the script. The producer took the first draft to assemble the budget, which took even more time. All in all, it took four years to get the project off the ground, and it wasn’t because of Murakami.”
“Did Murakami have any reservations?” I asked.
“Not really,” Tran said. “When I handed him the first draft, he gave me some notes which helped to improve it. With the second draft, he had no comments and told us that we can do now whatever we want. It took us about 20 drafts before we shot the movie.”
One of the most notable omissions of the film is Watanabe’s adult voice that frames the story into perspective. “It works perfectly well in the book,” Tran said, “but it doesn’t in the movie. When you depict two different periods, you have to establish a connection between the two.
“When something happens in the past, you have to trace its repercussions in the present. We have nothing like that in the book; Murakami never returns to the present again. Had I kept that structure, I would’ve been forced to create new scenes and events in the present when there’s already too much information and details in the book. It would’ve been absurd to create something new. That’s why I couldn’t use this structure. However, in order to augment the feeling of melancholia and communicate Watanabe’s inner feelings, I transported some of these monologues into few voice-overs.”
Lushness and strong sensuality are Tran’s strongest assets. “How do you do it?” I asked him.
“It’s actually very simple. What I really like in movies, as a viewer, is the physicality of the experience. Not only to understand the characters or the plot, but to physically feel the movie. The movie needs to have a musical quality, to have it play as a piece of music. Music touches you in a very physical way, it’s not intellectual, and it’s very direct. That’s how I wanted to the film to be when I adapted the book.
“The book is really sensual, but I couldn’t realize it in a straightforward way because it’s a different form of art. If you do nudity, it will look easy. If we, for example, had shown Nagasawa having sex with all these women as portrayed in the book, it would’ve looked cheap.”
One of the most striking themes of both the book and the movie is the interconnectivity of life and death; how joy and sadness are inseparable from one another.
“I think this theme comes full circle at the end of the movie, and it’s clearer in my opinion in the movie than in the book.”
He continued, “I thought the sex scene between Watanabe and Reiko was a very daring thing from Murakami to do because it’s very disturbing. Watanabe’s girlfriend dies, he grieves for a little while, goes back home and makes love to another woman and then goes to another woman and tells her that he loves her. It sounds crazy but the meaning behind it is very deep and very essential to the themes of the story.
“Watanabe felt guilt about the fact that he couldn’t save Naoko. By making love to Reiko, upon her request, which in itself is a very sad request for sex, he saves her; he gives her back what she had lost. He gives her back her sexuality so that she can start a new life; and for him, it’s way to save himself by saving someone’s life, to get rid of that burden so that he can start a new life with a new woman.”
Tran has often been criticized for focusing more on the aesthetics and visual quality of his films over developing his characters that occasionally appear distant and remote. Tran doesn’t agree.
“This is bulls**t,” he replied. “Beauty, for me, lies everywhere, in MTV, in the streets, everywhere. When I see something beautiful, I immediately want to express it. Beauty for me is about the right characters, the right theme; the right emotion, the right connection with the viewer; if they’re not right, you end up producing a simple image devoid of any beauty or context.
“When you sense that beauty in the film, it’s because all these elements are there, because they’ve been perfectly merged with each other, because you’ve been touched very deeply. You see beautifully-shot Hollywood films all the time but you feel nothing. ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ for example looks beautiful, but it’s empty.”
One of those perfect elements of “Norwegian Wood” is the mournful score by Radiohead lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, his third work in film following Simon Pummell’s documentary “Bodysong” in 2003 and his highly acclaimed collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson in “There Will Be Blood” (2007).
Tran has been a long-time Radiohead fan, using their music in “Cyclo” and “I Come with the Rain.” The partnership between Tran and Greenwood therefore seemed inevitable.
“When I saw ‘There Will Be Blood,’ I thought the texture of the music was perfect for ‘Norwegian Wood.’ Working with Johnny was great. The main thing I told him was that I wanted the music to confirm the emotions, not to create them or enhance them. That’s why you’d find the music starting at the end of a scene, when the emotion is already there.”
“Norwegian Wood” is out on DVD in the UK. Its North American theatrical release is scheduled later this year.
Ken’ichi Matsuyama and Kiko Mizuhara in a scene from “Norwegian Wood.”