Review: NORWEGIAN WOOD - A Handsomely Made Failure

rating: 3

(Rob's review from Venice re-posted as the film is released in the U.K. today) Great novels seldom make great films, so it is a tall order for Vietnamese writer and director, Ahn Hung Tran, to adapt a modern literary classic, Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, into a major Japanese movie. The result is something very beautiful, if ultimately unfulfilling. Norwegian Wood is very nicely shot indeed, with the spectacular Japanese countryside translating very well onto the big screen. Colours are saturated, with the lush greens of the grass, the gleaming white of the snow and the artificial yellow glow of a bathroom light bulb providing a sumptuous visual feast. Tran's shot selections are also interesting, sticking mostly to single take tracking shots and slow zooms, usually in close-up or medium shot. The uncomfortable claustrophobia of the (many extended) sex scenes is palpable. Only environments are afforded big and comparatively brief establishing shots, which serve to isolate the film's troubled and confused young protagonists: perfect for a film about contemporary (well nearly) Japanese society. The film feels subjective in a way that suits the book's first person narrative. That is the good. The negative is that, as a novel, Norwegian Wood was full of humour, with the young narrator Watanabe making social observations. Much of this is omitted or severely reduced so as to lose all impact. The humorous aspect is totally absent and with it goes the charm of the characters, who now seem a bit wet. This isn't a film for anyone who ever shouted "get over it" at the screen. The characters cry and scream in prolonged, loud and sustained outpourings of grief. And it's little wonder in a film with so much love and loss, and with characters so ill at ease. Also gone from the book is the sense that Watanabe is an older man looking back at events he can scarcely remember. This was perhaps the films most costly omission, and as a result much of the story loses meaning. I wasn't too enamoured with (500) Days of Summer, but maybe this could have done with being more inventive with the timeline, as opposed to the linear treatment afforded here. I was never bored, but this is not a film that lives up to its source material. A failure? Maybe. But certainly a handsomely made one. Norwegian Wood is released in the U.K. today.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.