Most of us expect cinema to be habitually kinetic, whether it is a narrative hurtling forth into the (hopeful) unknown or a pace that is sometimes tense or unrelenting. Sitting down to watch Tran Anh Hung's adaptation of Haruki Murakami's internationally renowned novel, one isn't sure what to expect. Having never poured over the novel, this writer walked into the film in the dark, and boy does he regret it - met with a meandering bit of arthouse cinema, his hopes withered at the forty-five minute mark. Tran Anh Hung, directing his second film after a nine year sabbatical, elects to tell Murakami's almost deceptively simplistic (or maybe just plain simple) story through punishing long takes that, while undoubtedly beautifully composed by hugely talented cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, keep the film at an uncomfortable distance.
Murakami's "Norwegian Wood" is ostensibly the story of Tokyo college student Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) and his entanglement with two very different women - damaged Naoko (the ever-reliable Rinko Kikuchi) and self-assured Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). Murakami sets this unstable love triangle against the volatile 1960s and populates it with romantics, dreamers and a lead that drifts aimlessly through hours in a day, unsure of his lot in life and haunted by a death that all but guaranteed a union between Toru and Naoko. Midori poses a challenge by shaking up the one thing Toru is sure of and the young man is forced to struggle and choose - a conflict he expressed outwardly mostly by brooding.
It is impossible to comment on how familiar with the novel Tran Anh Hung is, but the film he's made is best enjoyed in portions. In a single sitting, the lavish cinematography and Jonny Greenwood's score do little to lessen the lethargy of watching the painfully slow unraveling of young lives and the clashes of lovers. Norwegian Wood suffers from all the earmarks that keep otherwise adventurous cinemagoers from the international arthouse they may deem haughty - the pacing, the performances scaled down and down again until they alternate between a whimper and a shouting match, and scenes that seemingly exist to demonstrate an ever-elegant camera and peerless production design. So what? This film will certainly have its fans, but first and foremost as an engaging work of art, it doesn't beckon a primary watch through, nevermind replay value.
A widescreen transfer preserves the dreamy elegance achieved by Mark Lee Ping Bin. It is really an impressive piece of work, with a painterly compositions unmarred by any artifacts.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track is almost unnecessary for a film that consists mostly of whispered dialogue while Greenwood's score cuts through the subtlety, especially in the final stretch, when it blares unflappably.
Two extras offered on the disc include a ten minute featurette of the stars and director premiering the film at the 67th Venice International Film Festival, as well as an hour-long making-of. These are welcome additions even as the Venice extra feels extraneous and offers a few extremely superficial moments with the cast.
Serving as my final review for DVD Talk Norwegian Wood is a definite Rent It. Blame this author's youthful impatience but this film was an endurance test of the kind one is best to avoid.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...