Norwegian Wood film a labour of love

The film Norwegian Wood might never have been made had it not had an unusually persistent director.

Ken'ichi Matsuyama as Toru Watanabe in Norwegian Wood, Tran Anh Hung's film of the novel by Haruki Murakami.
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When the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami published Norwegian Wood in 1987, there was little to indicate how far the story would travel. Fast-forward 23 years, and not only have 10 million copies been sold in Japan, making it one of the nation's best-selling novels, it has also been read overseas by millions more in 36 languages. Now, Norwegian Wood, the movie, is hitting the big screen.

Leading up to the film's December 11 release, Japan seemed to be on the brink of a nationwide outbreak of Norwegian Wood fever. The retailer Uniqlo just announced a new range of Norwegian Wood T-shirts featuring a selection of scenes from the film. The local authorities in Kamikawa, Hyogo prefecture - in whose grass fields some of the film's most dramatic scenes were shot - are running shuttle buses to the filming locations in a bid to tap into a potentially lucrative Murakami tourist boom.

Few people are likely to be as relieved at the film's release as Tran Anh Hung, the Vietnamese-French director who arguably deserves an Oscar for perseverance alone.

On top of the usual litany of challenges facing a filmmaker - from finding a cast with perfect chemistry to securing often elusive financing - Tran had to deal with more than his fair share of difficulties.

For not only did it take the director four years of dedicated persuasion and patient discussion with Murakami even to allow him to make the film in the first place, but Tran then chose to make the film with a stellar Japanese cast in Japanese, a language he does not speak.

"I first read the book in 1984 and I was very emotionally touched," says Tran. "It is a story about first love - a love that you lose almost immediately after experiencing it.

"When I read it, I had this intuition that it was possible to make a film out of it. This became something I really wanted to do. It was a challenge, but once you start on a project, you have to do it."

Fortunately for viewers, the director persisted and overcame all obstacles, and the end result is a film that, unusually for a Japanese-language production, is now preparing for international release in 36 countries. It will be shown at the Dubai International Film Festival this week with Arabic and English subtitles.

A tale of first love, loss and sexuality, Norwegian Wood is set in Tokyo in the late 1960s against a backdrop of student unrest and focuses on the life of the lead character, a university student called Toru Watanabe.

Naoko, who emerges as his first love, also happens to be the fragile former girlfriend of Toru's best childhood friend, who has recently committed suicide.

Struggling to come to terms with that death, Naoko drops out of college and goes to a secluded mountain sanctuary in order to recover, and it is during her absence that Toru encounters the vivacious Midori - a girl who is the antithesis of the troubled Naoko.

Watching Norwegian Wood, it is clear that the visual beauty and intense intimacy of Tran's previous works - such as The Scent of Green Papaya - are again present in the new film, which received standing ovations at its Venice Film Festival premier.

From the tension created by the sound of the wind blowing through the grass during a mountainside conversation to the awkwardness and natural lighting in its intimate scenes, Norwegian Wood is as visually striking as it is atmospheric.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo ahead of the release, Tran - casually dressed and appearing younger than his 47 years - described the challenges of transforming such an introspective book into a film after four years of patient exchanges with the novelist.

"When you read a book by Murakami he has a special way of writing, it's very intimate," he says, adding: "There is a real intimacy with the story. This is what I wanted to put on the screen. This intimacy, this mysterious way of feeling - this is what I wanted to bring to the adaptation of the book."

Tran is the first to admit this was initially easier said than done. The screenplay was the next difficulty. "It took me six months to write the first 11 pages. Then I had to stop for two months because I couldn't continue. Then I wrote the rest in 21 days because the producer was chasing me."

While the first script was written in Tran's native French, this was then translated into English and formed the basis for discussions with Murakami - with whom he first made contact with his movie request in 2004 - before it was finally translated into Japanese.

Despite the linguistic merry-go-round, Tran insists that creating a film in a language he does not understand did not limit his critical faculties as a director.

The combination of a certain creative flexibility (Tran rewrote a number of scenes on the spot during filming) and the ability to depend on his reliable Japanese producer, Shinji Ogawa, also proved invaluable.

"When you don't understand a language and you look at a film, you know if it is well played or not," he says. "It's the same thing for me. When I don't understand the language, I can still see if it is not good. And when it's good I always have questions to see if it can be better or to see if I can change something."

Among the high-profile cast of Japanese stars is Ken'ichi Matsuyama, who puts in a pitch-perfect performance as Toru, and Kiko Mizuhara, a teenage fashion model, who makes her acting debut as Midori.

But Rinko Kikuchi - the first Japanese actress in 50 years to be nominated for an Oscar for her role as a deaf-mute teenager in Babel - is one of the real scene-stealers in an intense portrayal of the emotionally fragile Naoko.

Describing her determination to win the role of Naoko, Kikuchi tells of how she sent a tape of her acting to a seemingly uninterested Tran in order to convince him she was right for the part.

"I really wanted to be in this movie and I tried several times to organise an audition, but it seemed that he was not interested at all," she says. "So I asked if I could send a tape to him instead - and after he saw it, he agreed to meet with me the next day.

"The tape contained a scene from the book featuring Naoko and a well. I was very impressed with this scene when I first read the novel at the age of 18.

"Naoko was the same age at the time and I really had very strong emotions when I read it - and it was those same emotions I wanted to put into this part."

While some critics have questioned Tran's decision to omit some of the humour from the original book as well as the decision to let it run more than two hours, few dispute that the film is a visual feast that has been beautifully shot.

Referring to this, Train explains: "There are many beautiful images, on television and advertising, but for me, what is important is to have true images. It's not enough just to be beautiful. It has to be true to the drama or story that is unfolding.

"We decided to shoot this in high definition rather than 35mm because HD makes it much more bare compared with the graininess from shooting on film."

A few seconds after making this comment, Tran briefly interrupts his interpreter to correct her rendering of an abstract sentence referring to the "poetic ramifications of beauty".

This seemingly innocuous act - even more, perhaps, than his comments - offers a glimpse of the director's signature perfectionism, discipline and quest for truth, as captured in his new film.

And if the movie successfully seduces international audiences as expected, foreign film lovers may well be hoping it is not just in Japan where Norwegian Wood fever (yes, that includes T-shirts) is set to run wild.

Screening times for Norwegian Wood at DIFF: MOE 2, 9pm, Thursday; MOE 1, 5.15pm Saturday.