Bold is the filmmaker who would tackle the prose of cult novelist Haruki Murakami. Though Jun Ichikawa found success adapting the short story “Tony Takitani,” most of Murakami’s work is desolate and blackly humorous, centered on characters struggling with loneliness in a politically-troubled, often surreal world. That didn’t stop Tran Anh Hung, the director of “The Scent Of Green Papaya,” who brings us his long-in-the-works adaptation of the moody novel “Norwegian Wood.”
Set in Japan during the late sixties, “Norwegian Wood” follows Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama), a young man about to go to college despite recently losing his best friend to suicide. However, he gives his heart to his late friend’s ex, a decision that throws his life into turmoil further when he meets another girl, as he is forced to make the biggest decision of his life.
While “Norwegian Wood” has surfaced in other countries, it makes its domestic debut this Friday, and the director is a bit anxious about how it will be received. “I’m a little nervous about it, because Murakami’s book has more fans in the States than anywhere else in the world,” Hung told us in a recent interview. But putting the film together was more than a commercial challenge. It was a personal one as well.
“It’s amazing to see how many of his books are sad, but successful,” Hung says, noting he found a “deep spiritual connection” with the material. “His books touch something that is buried deep inside of us. When you read his books, you get the feeling something hidden has been revealed. It’s more about melancholy, a form of sadness with poetry. It’s a very specific feeling. You feel melancholy when you realize something is gone forever.”
“When I made this movie, it was important that it was faithful to the book,” he continued. As a result, the film is naturally truncated, excising a few beloved subplots and backstories. When it came time for the central narrative, Hung believed in focusing on Toru’s main story. “Everything that is not on the straight line of Watanabe’s journey, I had to get rid of it,” he lamented. Still, “when a [story] is a classic,” argues Hung, “it’s like an opera. You give your interpretation of the moment.”
That wasn’t as difficult as finding a leading lady, however. While the film’s star power is boosted by Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, she was initially an afterthought to the director. “Rinko insisted,” he smiles. “At the beginning, I didn’t think she would fit the role, because of her age. And also because the feeling I had when I saw ‘Babel,’ I just didn’t think she fit the role.” Kikuchi, who can next be seen in “47 Ronin” and “Pacific Rim,” was undeterred. “At the end of the auditions, I had two options, I was not fully happy with [either of them],” says Hung. “So I let her audition, and when I saw it, she was perfect, it was quite obvious.”
While Hung had been interested in “Norwegian Wood” previously, investors doubted the project, given Murakami’s reluctance to let it be adapted. “The project was desired by a lot of people in Japan, but Murakami didn’t allow anyone to adapt his books,” Hung explains. “Five years ago, the distributor of ‘The Vertical Ray Of The Sun‘ called me and said, maybe it’s time for you to ask Murakami. I went to Japan to meet with him, and he was very clear, and he said, ‘I don’t want to meet with anyone else.’ ” Hung may have been a beneficiary of Murakami’s film buff credentials. “He’s seen many more movies than I,” Hung admits with a laugh. “He had two conditions. One, to read the script. And the other was to know how much was the budget. Because he was aware you can’t make the movie with two or ten million. That’s two different movies.” Hung can confirm that Murakami and his wife are fans of the finished product.
“Norwegian Wood” also carries a much-launded instrumental score from Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead band member-turned-composer who caught everyone’s attention with his moody score for “There Will Be Blood.” Hung, a Radiohead listener, was one of those people. “When I saw ‘There Will be Blood,’ it sounded new to my ear,” he raved. “[Greenwood] has this quality of bringing out the beauty from the darkness in his music. It can be very intense. So it fits the romantic side of this story and the darker side.”
Hung was tight-lipped about his next effort, though he did suggest that it was a complete 180 from “Norwegian Wood.” The French-Vietnamese director confirms, “I’m working on a French project. For the first time, I will make a French movie.” It’s an adaptation of a book and it’s currently in the writing stages, and while he won’t reveal anything else, he confirms, “It’s something so different that it will change the way I make movies. It’s the first time a book suggested something like that to me.”
“Norwegian Wood” opens this Friday.