By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Director Tran Anh Hung left his native Vietnam in 1975, at the age of 12, after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces. Until the year 2000, he made all of his films, with permission, inside the unified Vietnam, showing a rich mixture of love for his homeland with Western influences, particularly rock music.
His new feature, “Norwegian Wood,” marks a bold step away from his old ways. Not mentioning Vietnam at all, the director works in Japan with an all-Japanese cast, filming a story from the best-selling Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.
Set in the late 1960s, the film opens with three teenage friends clowning around. Kizuki (played by Kengo Kora) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) have a romantic relationship, which started in their schoolboy/schoolgirl days and grew into something deeper. Their friend Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) secretly finds Naoko fascinating, but he settles for her friendship.
Only minutes into the movie, disaster strikes in the form of a sudden, violent death. The survivors must absorb this inexplicable loss and spend the rest of the film’s 133 minutes struggling to cope. For all of the movie’s amazing visual lushness, some of its most important elements — such as the characters’ inner pain and struggles against anguish and hopelessness — remain invisible to the eye.
But those elements form a balance for what the viewer can see. Every one of Tran Ahn Hung’s films looks like it could jump off the screen. His 2000 film “The Vertical Ray of the Sun,” in particular, showcased some of the most vivid colors and color schemes in recent cinema history. “Norwegian Wood,” with cinematography by the celebrated Taiwanese cameraman Mark Lee Bing Pin, upholds that tradition.
The 1960s setting allows for plenty of loud plaids and printed fabrics, especially on the shirts of the young college-age men. The women wear primary colors, notably bright red. Trees wave in bright green undulations during nature walks. Indoor sequences, particularly scenes of intimacy, become hued in vivid shades of blue, emphasizing the beautiful shadings of the faces.
Mark Lee Bing Pin sometimes turns his camera sideways for extreme close-ups, so the adolescent faces filling the screen seem to be floating in space. A kiss or a caress between two lovers assumes all the majesty of two starships docking in deep space.
And like deep-space maneuvers, human intimacy proves precarious. Watanabe finds himself torn between at least two different women. He is unable to fully provide what either of them wants. Giving his body to others proves easy enough for Watanabe. Giving his soul, the depths of his heart, and his total honesty proves something else altogether.
All the major characters emerge fully formed. As Naoko, Rinko Kikuchi speaks in a breathy little-girl voice and shows other preadolescent traits, such as keeping her lips open between sentences. This hints that she reached a certain point in her development and then stalled. Did her trauma cause this? Was she mentally delicate even before that? Some questions in the film receive definitive answers, but others, much like life itself, do not.
“Norwegian Wood” inherits the director’s previous obsessions — visual sumptuousness and a clear but sympathetic look at how people grow and change — but anchors them in the melancholy of Murakami’s story. Violence, once introduced into the lives of the characters, slithers like a parasitic, poisonous worm through their systems. The film’s characters wage an uncertain war against losing their own hearts to unseen infection. (end)
“Norwegian Wood” opens Friday, Jan. 27, at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, 511 Queen Anne Ave. N. in Seattle. For prices and show times, call 206-324-9996 or consult www.siff.net.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.