When it was published in Japan in 1987, Norwegian Wood ignited a popular frenzy that propelled author Haruki Murakami into international fame. Seen through the prism of our narrator Watanabe's memory, the novel takes us back to Japan's politically turbulent '60s, to follow a trio of young people whose paths become inexorably intertwined through love and loss.
Since 1987, Norwegian Wood has sold almost 13 million copies worldwide, and been translated into 33 languages. So it was only a matter of time until it got the big screen treatment - and the resulting film was always going to be a very big deal. What you wouldn't have expected, however, was that French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, whose work has almost exclusively focused on portraits of his birth country (as per Academy Award-nominee The Scent Of Green Papaya, and Golden Lion winner Cyclo), would be the one to do it.
Hung first read Norwegian Wood in 1994, and immediately knew he wanted to film it. "I think it was the feeling of intimacy - that I only have felt from Murakami's books. It makes you feel very close to the characters and their story. His stories talk directly to you - there is no distance; and somehow you feel that the book 'discovered' you - it recognised who you are. All his stories are really very, very sad, but people love them! Because they touch something deep inside of us - sometimes the dark side of ourselves."
Hung quickly discovered that Murakami was very reluctant to release the rights of his books to filmmakers - and was on the point of giving up when Japanese producer Shinji Ogawa contacted him; together they arranged to meet the author. Murakami asked to see the first draft of the screenplay, for which he provided extensive and detailed notes (including dialogue not in the original novel). Hung's subsequent redraft, incorporating these suggestions, marked the end of Murakami's involvement, with the author giving his blessing for the project.
There were many things in the novel that Tran was unable, or unwilling, to bring to his screen adaptation - most obviously its narrative framing device. But he was determined to maintain the mood, or atmosphere of Murakami's story.
"The challenge was to follow what happens in Watanabe's mind," says Hung. "Very early in the movie you see him meet Naoko, and start a love story with her; but the very next day he loses her - and his life is suspended. It was this feeling of suspension that I wanted to carry through the movie. It's like someone who changes the way he is breathing - it's very physical. And I wanted the audience to feel that tension. Even when he meets Midori - and she's very cute, and very lively - he cannot accept her love."
The other key 'mood' that Hung wanted to capture was "the beauty of the quality of how people behave towards each other in the book: there is something really delicate in how they are very respectful [of each other]. And this is something that I feel is lacking in life. So I wanted to see people in a movie talking to each other with this kind of softness - and bring some beauty out of [their suffering]."
As with Hung's Vietnamese films, nature plays a big role in Norwegian Wood, from windswept landscapes and weeping skies that reflect Watanabe's melancholia, to cutaways to close-ups of flora and fauna. "I like to use nature to 'stick wings' on the emotions of the characters … to give the sense of something wider, bigger. But also to bring some more mysterious feelings - for example, when Watanabe is grieving, because this feeling is so primitive, I wanted to find a place that looked like the beginning of life: just rocks and water, and the violence of nature. And the violence of the waves will break all of the resistance he has inside him, so that he can cry."
The use of nature to transmit emotion is emblematic of Hung's fundamental belief that films should show, not tell. "I like to work this way because it's mysterious, it's abstract; and it's physical - you can feel it, on a primal level."
The discussion naturally turns to another filmmaker who marries nature and emotion: Terrence Malick - whose Tree Of Life had just released at the time of the interview. "It's a bad movie," Hung smiles. "The New World is a masterpiece, but The Tree Of Life is a bad film. And I can show you precisely why it's not good. It's to do with the language of cinema - and unfortunately the movies that are made these days don't work on this level; they don't use the specific language of this art. They just use cinema as illustration - they use pictures to tell the story. So that's why they need storyboards and all of this, so they can 'cover the scene', cover the story. But you lose everything - the meaning of life, the feeling of life, the melancholy of life."
"You have to work on an abstract level," Hung continues. "Abstraction is how to get inside the heart of people, the emotion, without going through the intellect, or relying on what you can understand. You have to feel it, to understand life, and to make your sensibility go to another level. This is the goal of art."
Norwegian Wood opens on Thursday October 6 and will be shown at Palace Como, Palace Brighton, Cinema Nova and Rivoli Cinemas.