It takes its title from the Haruki Murakami novel of the same name, which in turn takes its title from the Beatles song on the Rubber Soul album, which is either about an extramarital affair John Lennon was having at the time or, if you believe Paul McCartney, about a guy who sets a girl's house on fire because she won't put out. Either way, it's about how rotten it is to be young and in love. To be in for the romance is also to be in for the heartbreak and the overwhelming feeling that you'll never recover from it.
In the late 1960s in Tokyo, students Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kengo Kora) are inseparable friends and Naoko and Kizuki are in love. But before we learn anything about Kizuki, he's committed suicide, setting in motion a chain of events equal parts romantic, tragic, grief-stricken, sexual, sexually dysfunctional (quick, name the last movie you saw where vaginal dryness was a subplot) and, ultimately, deeply moving thanks to, yes, more suicides. In a culturally dumbified world where the Twilight phenomenon has inadvertently cast a harsh fluorescent light on the inherently annoying qualities of obsessively love-stricken young people, their shallow death wishes and their every yearning sigh, that's significant. In fact, that these characters are, more or less, also ignoring the social upheaval of their time in order to focus on their own personal troubles should probably feel like an indictment, but director Tran Anh Hung won't allow it. He's taking his characters as seriously as they take themselves.
Don't worry if that name isn't familiar to you. The Vietnamese-born French director has made only five films since his 1993 debut, The Scent of Green Papaya. He followed it with Cyclo, The Vertical Ray of the Sun and the unreleased-in-the-U.S. I Come with the Rain. He takes his time. But if that's what's necessary to make his films as visually intoxicating and sensual as they are, then fine, let him be slower than Stanley Kubrick. He communicates grief with scenes of gorgeous gardening, loss with shots of mute snow falling, pleasure with deep blue-black moonlight on flesh and he does it all, somehow, without the dazzling aggression that usually accompanies directors who are secretly envious of cinematographers. He'd much rather show than tell but he never wants to brag about what he's showing. And his mood is so subdued it's almost apologetic. Meanwhile, the score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) takes all the pretty-pretty on screen as license to go dissonant by contrast.
Just don't watch it if you're 19 with a tendency to under-distance yourself from films. People used to talk about how heavy metal made kids commit suicide, but the fact is that it's probably mournful romantic tragedy and "my world is empty without you" songs that are the real culprits. As pretty a package as it comes wrapped in, this is a "how not to," concealing ugly realities in gorgeous melody, just like the song it's named for.