John Lennon was cheating on his first wife when he wrote "Norwegian Wood" about a quick, fleeting love affair he had with someone he couldn't "remember anything specific about." The phrase "Norwegian wood" refers to a cheap Ikea type of furniture made of pressed pine. The phrase denotes something that is easily acquired and easily dismissed. While The Beatles' song refers to something of little value, Haruki Murakami's story of the same name tackles deeper themes like love, loss, and remembering.
Toru Watanabe is in love with two women, the fragile and doomed Naoko and the vivacious seductress Midori Kobayashi. Both women are incapable of finding their own happiness and act as anchors around Turu's ankles. Naoko is haunted by the death of a former love while the abandoned Midori seeks as much attention as she can soak up. Like many male Murakami protagonists, Toru is too impossibly passive to free himself from this situation. He is a boat at sea with no rudder, while both of these women are (unintentionally) sinking his ship.
The story unfolds in Tokyo in 1967 and -- much like the American 1960s -- there is a strong counterculture movement in Japan that has created a distinctive social divide. In the novel version, the passivity of Toru is foiled by the discontent of a generation. With the exception of one scene, the film adaptation ignores the period setting completely. Throughout the movie we orbit around this love triangle without nary an outward glance at the world at large.
Tran Anh Hung creates and grey and blue world full of rain and melodrama. The film is driven by long, sweeping cinematic shots that invite us into the thoughts of the characters without being weighed down by lengthy (subtitled) dialogue. The effect is ethereal and empty (empty haunting -- not empty vapid). Much like jazz, the dialogue gives equal weight to what is not said as to what is said. Murakami is known for setting his stories in liminal space, the space between things. Naoko spends her time in a mental institution in the forest and Midori is left behind in the apartment of her parents who have both moved on. Throughout the film, Toru drifts in between these two settings as if he is a prisoner of them.
The entire film exists in this liminal space, including the score. Jonny Greenwood, the multi-instrumental prodigy behind Radiohead, scores the film. Like everything else, his compositions are given space to breathe. There are many scenes that receive no score and are left silent, making Greenwood's pieces even more pronounced when they do appear.
While it is easy to see what Hung is attempting to accomplish, only Murakami can pull off Murakami. Hung's movie is worth seeing, but falls short of bringing its source material to fruition. What attempts to be light, airy, haunting, empty, and contemplative comes off as weighty, teary-eyed, and overly-dramatic. It is a beautiful film that is wonderfully acted, however, it doesn't exist in the same space as the original Murakami story.
As The Beatles lyric asks, "Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?"
I'd have to say, "Ehh, B-."