Longing plays a key role in Tran Anh Hung’s new film “Norwegian Wood,” and it’s an emotion with which fans of the Vietnamese-born director have some familiarity.
The filmmaker behind such beautifully crafted and emotionally powerful films as “The Scent of Green Papaya,” “Vertical Ray of the Sun” and “Cyclô” has made only five films since 1993, leaving his many admirers constantly wanting for more. (Especially those of us in the United States, where his fourth film, “I Come with the Rain” didn’t even get a release.)
The fact that there’s a new Tran film in theaters would already be noteworthy; that “Norwegian Wood” is also a visually stunning and moving piece of storytelling bolstered by searing performances and a standout score by Jonny Greenwood (“There Will Be Blood”) is icing on the cake.
In the first few minutes of “Norwegian Wood,” we’re presented with two powerful images — first we see Kizuki (Kengo Kora) swim underwater in a public pool to embrace his girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), and then we see him put a hose through his car window to commit suicide. Kizuki’s death haunts the film, for its impact not only on Naoko but also on Kizuki’s best friend Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama).
Watanabe, our narrator, leaves his small town for college in Tokyo, where he soon crosses paths with Naoko. A budding romance ensues, but the memory of Kizuki is never far away. And while classmate Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) clearly enjoys flirting with Watanabe, she has a boyfriend, while Watanabe is clearly hung up on Naoko, whose fragile mental health keeps expanding the distance between the two of them.
Tran and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin create one stunning shot after another, whether it’s surges of protesters charging through the streets (the film is set in the late 1960s) or the beautiful, rolling hills of the countryside, where passing clouds turn the lush greenery into something more foreboding.
As with his previous films, however, Tran isn’t interested in creating a pretty coffee-table book — he’s a master of telling his story (he adapted Haruki Murakami’s bestselling novel for the screen) through images, and of using light and shadow to convey mood and emotion.
We see those hills, incidentally, both awash with foliage and covered in snow, and it’s a reminder of what a director can accomplish with locations when the shooting schedule allows him to return to them at different points in the year.
At its most romantic, “Norwegian Wood” is as swoony as Wong Kar-Wai at his most lovesick, but this is a rare romance where discussion of sex (and sexual dysfunction) occurs throughout without disrupting the tone. Naoko’s reticence to love again after Kizuki’s death, as well as her guilt over his having committed suicide in the first place, can be tied to her own body’s reactions to intimacy.
Kikuchi, incidentally, is the perfect star for Tran; her virtually-silent performances in “Babel” and “The Brothers Bloom” were no less captivating for being non-verbal, and while she’s got much more dialogue here than in those previous two films, she conveys volumes with her face. “The Artist” may be a nostalgic reminder that silent films barely exist anymore, but Kikuchi has been proving for some time that she doesn’t need words to be a compelling actress.
The film really belongs to Matsuyama, who has the thankless task of playing a protagonist who’s completely committed to a love that is clearly doomed. He gives Watanabe’s yearning a clear-eyed resonance that keeps the character from seeming like a delusional doormat; we understand his actions and become the coxswain encouraging him to row faster, even when we can see the waterfall ahead.
Completing the central triangle is Mizuhara, whose Midori is clearly shielding her vulnerabilities with an outward mask of coquetry: When her father dies, she first asks Watanabe not to come to the funeral and then requests that he take her to a “very dirty” porno movie. That’s the sort of winsomeness that can be hard for audiences to digest, but Mizuhara makes this complicated college girl completely empathetic.
The first months of the year are generally considered a dumping-ground for movies that can be easily ignored during awards season, but “Norwegian Wood” is that rare January release that has a real shot of popping up on December’s Top Ten lists.