A film like Norwegian Wood arrives at the screen with much fanfare from fans of Haruki Murakami's novel, as well as devotees of the film's director, Anh Hung Tran. It is the story of poor Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama), who always seems like a third wheel, even when there are only two people in the room. He looks back on his life in Tokyo in the 1960s, remembering all the political upheaval that matched the same kind of inner turmoil he felt while dealing with friends who died too soon and the women he loved. Although on paper, one may assume this is just a garden-variety coming-of-age tale--but everything about the film works in tandem to completely hypnotic results.
Watanabe is going through familiar predicaments--childhood friends become something more, but life is complicated, and you meet someone else, and you age and find ways to meet your needs that are inconsistent with what your heart wants. But even though my brain understood the story, it was hard for me to get past how emotionally distant the characters felt. It's hard to say whether that's a result of cultural difference or the classic complex-book-whittled-down-to-two-hour-movie issue (since I am a white girl who hasn't read the source material). However, I quickly abandoned that concern, because the film is like quicksand--although I felt distance, I also felt immersed in it. Soon, the performer's polite and measured, yet still emotionally charged exchanges became normal, and I was hooked like it was 1995 and I was watching Days of Our Lives (minus any possession story lines or rescues from burning buildings).
The film, even though the story deals with volatile issues of love, sex, and civil unrest, is completely opposite visually in how concrete and unshakable it is. As is customary in Tran's films (like the acclaimed The Scent of Green Papaya), the cinematography by Ping Bin Lee is nothing short of spectacular. The character's concern with sex and relating to each other always take place amid stunning nature scenes right next to the birds and the bees where it belongs. It made me wonder how anyone who lived somewhere that beautiful could ever be indoors.
Also impossible to overlook is the score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who adds another layer of viscosity to the dreamlike project. Every movie he's involved in, from There Will Be Blood to 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin, is noticeably bolstered by his music that propels the film along invisibly. In fact, it could be the external factors that ended up making this film so mesmerizing; a gentle cinematic vibration that I hope never fades.