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Vietnamese Director Brings Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood" to U.S. Theaters

Posted: Jan 31, 2012

Japanese is a foreign language to him, but Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Anh Hung was able to surpass all cultural and language barriers to bring the Japanese novel “Norwegian Wood” to the big screen.

In 1994, Hung first read the popular novel “Norwegian Wood” by Japan’s Haruki Murakami in its French translation and felt and intimate connection with the love story.

The intensely sexual novel takes place in Japan in the tumultuous 1960s as main character Toru Watanabe, played by Kenichi Matsuyama, is coping with the loss of his best friend who committed suicide. The lead character also struggles to choose between two distinctly different love interests, all while he grieves the loss of his friend.

Some 10 million copies of the book were sold in Japan. The widely popular book was also translated into 33 languages and over 2 million copies were sold overseas in countries like Hung’s native Vietnam.

Born in Vietnam, Hung later moved to Laos as a child. His family soon relocated to Paris after the fall of Saigon. He opted for a career in the film industry after abandoning his pursuit of a philosophy degree.

In 1993 Hung wrote and directed “The Scent of Green Papaya.” His films “Vertical Ray of Sun” and “I Come with the Rain” followed.

Captivated by the novel, Hung met with the “Norwegian Wood” author to show him a draft of his screenplay adaptation. After the novel’s author added more dialogue, Hung revised the screenplay and created the film.

Adapting “Norwegian Wood” as a film proved more challenging considering Hung’s limited understanding of Japanese. The film’s producer, Shinji Ogawa, served as a translator for Hung and the actors. But not understanding the language spoken in the film was not too burdensome for the director. Hung said the dialogue sounded “like music that grows increasingly mysterious and fetishistic.”

The end result was a cinematically beautiful love story that transcends different cultures and languages much like the original novel.

The film, which premiered in Japan in 2010, opened in California theaters on January 27th.

From Paris, Hung talked to the Pacific Citizen about the making of the film.

What do you look for when you take on a new film project? What appealed to you about “Norwegian Wood?”

For a new project, I always look for material that allows me to work on the specific language of cinema, to create emotions that the audience can only experience with this art.

“Norwegian Wood” was my first adaptation. I was moved by the story and the characters. It was a big challenge to give back to the audience the feeling of melancholy that I received from the book.

Can you tell me about your initial impressions of Haruki Murakami’s novel?

My initial impressions were the quality of intimacy in the way Haruki Murakami tells this story. I felt very close to the book as if the book reveals something deeply buried inside of my private emotions.

Can you tell me about your journey to becoming a director? Did you always know you wanted to be a director?

As a first-generation immigrant, I never thought that it was possible to work in the film industry. But then, when I was studying philosophy, a movie made by a Vietnamese living in Paris came out. So I said to myself that if he can do it, I can do it too.

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a director?

I’d be a painter. But the problem is when I draw a line the line is dead!

What were some of the challenges you faced in directing “Norwegian Wood?”

Since I don’t speak Japanese, the language was one of the challenges. But with a combination of methods and sensibility, I was able to overcome this problem. The greatest challenge was to make a good movie! I had to find out a way to express this intimacy while working in the specific language of cinema. I would say that something happens when, in the movie, we go from one scene to another. For instance, it’s difficult to put into words the emotions we feel when at the end of the movie, we see Naoko, Watanabe and Reiko together by the water after the love scene between Reiko and Watanabe. What we feel is powerful but difficult to explain. That makes the movie very intimate with the viewer because it works on the very personal and private level of our emotions. And it’s only possible by the means of the specific art of cinema.

Can you talk about the casting process? Did you have specific actors in mind for the starring roles?

No, I didn’t have specific actors in mind. When I’m meeting with an actor, what I’m looking for is his humanity, or what I can see about it. It needs to be very close to the humanity of the characters. It’s the determinative parameter. Then I hope that their talent and passion will be great enough to facilitate the way to a great performance. I was lucky to be able to work with very talented actors. They all delivered great performances even when they only appear in one scene, as was the case for Eriko Hatsune in the role of Hatsumi. Rinko Kikuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama were excellent. Some of the very difficult scenes would not have been possible without their great talent.

Do you have any funny or interesting behind-the-scenes stories you could share?

One night, during a dinner with the crew, Rinko Kikuchi came to me and, very moved, told me something that had disturbed her for a while I guess. She said that there is something that she cannot understand about herself and asked me: “Hung, how come when I cry in real life, I don’t feel it’s as true as when I cry on the set for a scene?” And my answer made her cry in the restaurant: “Because you are an artist. In life, we have experiences but, in art, we have expressions. For an artist, expression is always more true and perennial than experience.”

What other projects are you working on now?

A Japanese love story set in Tokyo and Kyoto. A French movie based on a marvelous book.

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