The most depressing day of 2012 is supposed to be January 16, taking into account things like gloomy weather, fading Christmas joy and general Monday malaise. However, what hasn't been considered in that theory is that Tran Ang Hung's "Norwegian Wood" actually comes out a full 10 days before the supposed most depressing day of the year, giving the 16th a run for its money. Like its source material from Haruki Murakami, this is a beautiful film that exquisitely captures grief and sadness, and unsurprisingly, it probably won't help you if you're suffering from seasonal affective disorder.
Review: ‘Norwegian Wood’ Is Depressingly Beautiful…Or Beautifully Depressing
Review: 'Norwegian Wood' Is Depressingly Beautiful...Or Beautifully Depressing
Murakami's novels and short stories have often been called "unfilmable," but "Norwegian Wood" is his most realistic book to date, lacking talking cats, alternate realities or surreal mysteries. Instead, the novel and Tran's film center on a pair of young love triangles in late-sixties Tokyo. Wantanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama, "Death Note") and fragile Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, "Babel") are at once drawn together and pushed apart by their mutual friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora), who killed himself on his birthday. Long walks through a verdant Tokyo push them toward something more than friendship, but Kizuki's absence hangs over Naoko, causing her to spend much of her time in an idyllic sanitarium. While Naoko is away, Wantanabe connects with the vibrant Midori (newcomer Kiko Mizuhara), forcing him to choose between the withdrawn love he's known for years and an exciting woman he just met.
With "Norwegian Wood," audiences have never seen a more lovely vision of modern Tokyo (sorry, Sofia Coppola). Shot by Mark Lee Ping Bin (who previously collaborated with Tran on the equally gorgeous "Vertical Ray of the Sun"), this film is a sensuous exploration of nature, grief and first loves in the city and the countryside. You hear the sound of insects chirping, feel the rough wood as Wantanabe runs his hand along a railing and see light filter through the trees. But it's the most intimate scenes between Wantanabe and Naoko that draw you in, whether they're long takes of the two walking and talking or closer-than-close shots of the couple as they're having sex for the first time.
What's unfortunate is that through all the visual beauty, the characters themselves aren't very interesting or even likable. The film dwells in sadness, but it's tough to care about what they're going through other than in the abstract. Tragedies of this level in another film could be devastating, but because of the characters in "Norwegian Wood," we'll merely have to eat a pound of chocolate to recover. While Naoko is damaged, she's also incredibly selfish and changeable, veering between lifeless and grating. Meanwhile, Wantanabe's other option, Midori, may be warmer, but she isn't concerned with Wantanabe's feelings other than how they relate to her. While she's a carefree alternative, it's tough to see any depth in her character. Even Wantanabe–who is supposed to be the film's emotional center–doesn't seem to exist beyond his conflicted feelings for the two women and his love of music.
Music has always been a focus of Murakami's literary work, and it takes center stage here, whether it's the songs from German rockers Can, the titular (almost too) spot-on song from The Beatles or the score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. While Greenwood was robbed (robbed!) of an Oscar nomination for his work on "There Will Be Blood," his composition here distracts and detracts from the emotional story, with the dissonant strings screeching in moments that are meant to be moving. We're all for nontraditional score choices, but this one pushes you even further from connecting with the film.
Some will also take issue with Tran's script, as it meanders and is more about mood than plot development or a typical narrative arc. Wantanabe and Naoko's relationship repetitively cycles through times of bliss and scenes where Naoko's madness inevitably wins out, becoming so predictable that it seems a result of an algorithm. However, "Norwegian Wood" does nicely capture the moments that matter in the interactions between Wantanabe and Naoko, as well as his relationship with Midori. All three actors are capable, with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi ably communicating Naoko's mood swings. We may not want to spend time with these people, but they're believable in their complexity and flaws.
"Norwegian Wood" may be lovely and able in its depiction of unrequited love and grief, but it's tough to leave the experience and muster much more than a sigh. You'll marvel at the perfectly shot film for a moment, but it's too dour to leave anything other than that its aesthetics with you. [B]