I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...Based upon the novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung boldly translates the story to the big screen with a cast of familiar faces in Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in lead roles, but somehow this attempt seemed to float along rather casually into a typical tale of a love triangle, loss and sexuality without much emotional depth. Set in the late 1960s in Japan with a whole host of student turmoil, this aspect of the story got shelved aside to focus more on the personal coming of age tale of Toru Watanabe (Matsumaya) and the women in his life.
She showed me her room, isn't it good, norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.
I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, norwegian wood. -- The Beatles
So putting aside the various one night stands he benefitted from hanging out with casanova Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), Watanabe has to choose between Naoko (Kikuchi), a girl whom he knows from his younger days when she was the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora) who inexplicably committed suicide, and that of Midori (Kiko Mizuhara putting in a very charismatic performance) who actually had made the first move in getting to know him better, although stopping short of going the full distance given a boyfriend whom we never see on screen.
Depending on your preference and emotional pull toward broad stereotypes of people, the two girls are very much distinct in their personalities, one being an emotional wreck given the loss of Kizuki and spending her time in rehabilitation, which accounted for the many lush, green and white sceneries depending on the calendar month, while the other is a perpetual sunshine, confident, outgoing and attractively lively. It's pessimism versus optimism, although you'd probably understand Watanabe's obligation toward Naoko having spent time growing up together, losing their mutual friend and growing close, not to mention an awkward deflowering process that happened to seal the emotional deal and attachment.
And you wonder if you'd call that love, or attraction even, as opposed to the proposition with another girl who had entered into a crossroads in his life, being stuck in time having to want to care for someone close, versus a new opportunity being presented with Midori's presence. Tran's vision puts one into a deliberately slow paced evaluation as Watanabe struggles to understand his emotional predicament and dilemma presented, where if one doesn't know how to proceed at a forked road ahead, one stalls for time, and stalling is what this film felt like.
But thanks to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, this allows for plenty of beautiful postcard picturesque shots of the countryside, and many visually stunning captures of emotions of the characters at hand, allowing sensitive, moving moments to come through, and even chances to showcase a long tracking shot set out in the fields which flip flops across the screen as Naoko shares with Watanabe her oft confused state. My favourite however involved that between Watanabe and Midori in a snow filled landscape, cold in scenery but completely filled with the warmth of heart. The cinematography added a boost in the mundane state of characterization, and when things can't move forward, at least your eyes can start to roam at the well crafted technical shots and composition of the film, in addition to the era of the 60s.
The subplots of the rich story tried to muscle its way into the film but ultimately got sacrificed to stay focus on the primary trio, in a tale about finding it tough to let go and move on without being perceived as uncaring. And just when I thought the story had finally found its grounding from which to move off, in comes a deus ex machina moment to help propel it forward, taking off the shine of emotional roller-coaster of the previous two hours, which made it all seem a little futile and a waste. Draw your own conclusions if you will since the film left things unsatisfying and open ended, and what you take away from the film, will probably be self reflective. I tried to love this film, but ultimately I can't.