The French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung is a curious case for me. I remember snoozing my way through both viewings of his gorgeous, acclaimed (and Oscar-nominated) debut The Scent of Green Papaya back in 1993, and filing him away as one of those filmmakers I just didn’t “get.” But I admired his 1995 follow-up Cyclo (which, admittedly, had a bit more narrative kick to keep me awake), and I adored 2000’s The Vertical Ray of the Sun. That latter title got a tepid critical response, but the more years I live the more it feels like one of the greatest films ever made.
Tran seems to be one of the few filmmakers who can truly pull off languor onscreen – not stillness, not austerity, not quiet, but languor, the tactile and delicate quality of characters just doing nothing but passing time in their own ways. Vertical Ray was about a trio of sisters, one brother, and their husbands and lovers in various stages of relationship disarray, but the repeated refrain in the film – a sister and brother who were not so secretly in love with one another waking up in the morning – became a leitmotif, a strange projection of innocence, familiarity, and doomed, submerged passion. Tran has since also made a strange English-language genre film, I Come with the Rain, starring a post-stardom Josh Hartnett, which is stylish but didn’t do much for me.
And now comes Tran’s film of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I haven’t read the novel (though like many people I know everything there is to know about the song), so I feel a bit under-equipped to comment on the nature of the adaptation. However, Tran seems to have returned to the style of Vertical Ray with this film – perhaps taken it to even greater extremes. The story explores a series of tangled college-age relationships – and one uniquely tragic one in particular -- during the turbulent 1960s, though the political turmoil of the time only shows up ever so briefly, as if to help underline the fact that everything seems so unhinged. But the film, as diffuse as it is narratively, actually has a resolute focus on the affairs of the heart. We see so little of the other parts of these characters’ lives; if someone asked me to describe what they did all day, I couldn’t tell you. Tran seems to only care about how love and desire and need, in their various forms, drift in and out of our lives. That could get monotonous, but the film is in fact a rollercoaster of emotion; he finds as much to show us in a scene of two people sitting quietly as he does in a scene of them making passionate love.
If Vertical Ray took a very linear, structured approach to its multi-character, multi-arc narrative – delineating every storyline clearly and distinctly – Norwegian Wood takes the opposite tack, creating an almost kaleidoscope-like effect where time bends and relationships bleed into each other, even when they’re occurring in different time periods. Stylistically, this is a remarkable challenge, but the director, ever the sensualist, seems up to the task. The film never gets confusing, perhaps because we’re being carried away by the lush imagery or the eclectic music choices on the score. (Much like Wong Kar-wai, to whose 2046 Norwegian Wood bears some similarities, Tran understands the importance of surface in film – that if something looks and sounds right it can bridge a million gaps.)
I don’t know if this aforementioned, fever-dream-like quality of the story comes from Murakami or Tran, but it feels emotionally right. A friend once told me that any given relationship between two people existed in a secret continuum with all the other relationships those people had ever had. I don’t know if I agree entirely, but Norwegian Wood is one of the more compelling cinematic evocations of that thought I’ve seen.