My initial impressions of Norwegian Wood when viewed for the first time were that its pacing was too slow, the characters talked rather a lot about sex and little else, and there were some big gaps in the narrative. I decided to withhold any judgment at the time because the viewing took place during a plane trip where an almost certainly edited version was shown on a small screen.
The recent release of Norwegian Wood on DVD in Australia brought another opportunity to revisit the film, and as it turned out, the second viewing was a lot more enjoyable, though those initial impressions of the film still generally hold true. The pacing is very slow and watching the film requires a bit of patience. And the characters do talk a lot about sex, but they do so with honesty and the discussions contribute to an understanding of the difficulties that they face.
The film's biggest weakness lies in the way the story is told. Yes, the gaps in the narrative are less obvious than seen in the 'flight edition'. However, two particular parts of the film still feel awkward - the passing of one of the characters at the start, and the visit of Watanabe by Reiko at the end. Viewers never get to really find out much about the character who dies, and so when the rest of the film focuses so much on the impact of this on the two people he was closest to, it becomes difficult to empathize with them. The second part is the visit of Watanabe by Reiko, during which comes a most unexpected request, to which the response was an equally surprising 'are you sure?'.
A number of other factors made the second viewing a lot more enjoyable, however. A major strength of the film became obvious when it was viewed on a large screen television - the cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin, who was responsible for films such as Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love and Tran's early film Vertical Ray Of The Sun. He has done a fantastic job with Norwegian Wood, making it look breathtakingly beautiful and very much like a work of art. Jonny Greenwood, guitarist from Radiohead, scored the film. The soundtrack is at times delicate and other times haunting, and complements the visuals well. The performances are also impressive. Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Kiko Mizuhara do well playing three troubled adolescents living in the late 1960s and involved in a love triangle, as these characters are not particularly likeable or easy to relate to. Kikuchi especially has a difficult role playing Naoko, a young lady suffering from a mental disorder, and she handles it remarkably well.
There is no doubt about it: Norwegian Wood is a beautiful film. It is a challenging viewing experience that is in the end quite memorable. Reading the original novel first should help fill in some of the narrative gaps. However, the visuals, the music, the acting and the nostalgia work together to make it all worthwhile. For lovers of art house films and fans of Haruki Murakami's novel especially, this is really worth checking out.
(Parts of this review have been revised, and I want to thank my friend J.P. for his constructive comments.)
Norwegian Wood is released in Australia by Curious Film, and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.