From Viet Nam to Japan via France: Tran Anh Hung’s Latest Film

While the acclaimed adaptation of Murakami’s novel has yet to be released in the United States, diaCRITIC correspondent in France Ly Lan Dill gives us a sneak peak at Trần Anh Hùng’s Norwegian Wood and some insight into Trần’s evolution as a filmmaker and his cinematic sensibilities.

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Tran Nu Yên-Khê and Trần Anh Hùng.

The tale of Trần Anh Hùng and his rise to cinematographic acclaim is as carefully rehearsed and precisely dispensed as any of the scenes in his movies. When questioned, he offers a controlled version of his story as immigrant boy who succeeded in crafting an international name through a handful of shorts and his Vietnamese trilogy. Born in Mỹ Tho in 1962, he andhis parents left for France in 1975. As tailors, both his parents found work sewing uniforms for the French army upon arrival in their host country. Trần Anh Hùng completed two years of a Philosophy undergraduate degree before switching to cinema studies at the Ecole Louis-Lumière in 1987. Drawing on Vietnamese folk tales, he directed two student shorts: La Pierre de l’attente in 1991 and La Femme mariée the following year. He met Tran Nu Yên-Khê, his muse and future wife, during the shooting of his first short in Paris; she has starred in almost all of his films since. The Guardian reports that he dropped out of film school during finals: “I didn’t want to have a diploma because I knew that if I had it my parents would ask me to work. And then I would be a cameraman for television, then I would earn a lot of money and have an apartment, a girlfriend.” Instead, he took a job at the Musée d’Orsay bookshop and wrote five scripts over the next four years.

He would continue to explore his ties with Vietnam through recurring themes of innocence, war, moral consequences, separation, broken families, sorrow, and mourning in each episode of his Vietnamese trilogy: Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya – 1993), Xích lô (Cyclo – 1995), Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng (The Vertical Ray of the Sun – 2000). Caméra d’or at Cannes, César for Best Debut, a Golden Lion at the Mostra of Venice, the trilogy established the young director as a major force in Asian cinema.

His choice of themes, the fact that Mùa hè chiều thẳng đứng competed as a Vietnamese production in international festivals, and the ever-present backdrop of an idealized Việt Nam had the French media comparing him to Wong Kar Wai. The pressure to be the next big Asian director may have been part of the reason he chose to expand his range in his fourth feature after an eight-year hiatus.

In 2009, he delivered  I Come with the Rain, a baroque thriller, spinning his version of the Western cinematographic trinity: the serial killer, the private eye, and the lamb led to slaughter. The French production used Hollywood and Asian actors, was filmed in English, and yet had only a very limited run in Japan, Korea, Brazil, Taiwan, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Russia.

The stars, the novel, and the director of Norwegian Wood.

His latest project heralds a more acclaimed comeback as he tackles Haruki Murakami’s coming of age novel, Norwegian Wood. Though he has expanded past Việt Nam, he remains an Asian director to his own advantage. It is rumored that Murakami had refused many offers to turn his cult novel into a movie, waiting for an Asian director to project the region’s aesthetic. After having met several times and having seen the beginnings of Trần Anh Hùng’s script, Murakami told the director to go with the movie in his head. The important thing was to make the most beautiful movie possible. Trần Anh Hùng’s movie of the same name debuted in 2010 in Japan and has been garnering nominations for best movie, best screenplay, and best director at several festivals, starting with the Venice Mostra 2010.

The eternal innocence of  Mùi đu đủ xanh, destroyed in Xich Lo, and reconquered in Mùa hè is once again scrutinized in Norwegian Wood.  The film, like Haruki Murakami’s book, is set in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Watanabe, played by Kenichi Matsuyama, is a young university student who must choose between two loves: Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide, and Midori, a lively, vibrant woman begging to lead him into the future. We follow the three on the brink of adulthood as they experience the awkward fumblings of first love, as they come to grips with first grief, and as they decide whether the strength of being adult is worth losing the innocence of youth.

Though Watanabe is the central character in Murakami’s novel, it is the many female characters that are the movie’s true strength, as in all of Trần Anh Hùng’s films. In one scene, Midori comes out of the swimming pool, water streaming over her face. In her, the public sees a slightly older sister of Mùi, from Mùi đu đủ xanh, washing her face in the courtyard of the pianist. In another, Midori and Watanabe walk through her home in a subtle game of hide and seek with the sliding doors. The atmosphere is reminiscent of Liên and her brother, in Mùa hè, going back and forth through the arch that separates their bedrooms. The three women we see with Watanabe all offer at one point or another their innocence to a man-boy who can only say, “Of course.”

In an interview with Arte, Trần Anh Hùng talked of the importance of gentleness and fragility in his actors. He underlined the importance of delicate gestures and soft voices to lend a certain preciousness to their acting, a certain sence of respect for the public, to offset the stark nature of the sexual dialogue and bring it all back to the innocence of first love.

This led him to reject Rinko’s request to act in his movie several times over. After having seen her award-winning performance in Babel, his aversion to what he calls “too expressive” acting in American films made him believe she could never be his Naoko. After much  insistence, she managed to audition, and from that, he knew he had found his heroine.

This search for the precious, the delicate, the fragile, can also be seen as the visual proof of his own search to shed the obvious exterior signs of cultural knowledge, which he considers baggage; he strives to shed external pressure in order to invent his own, highly personal, visual language.

Norwegian Wood takes us through the seasons with the vibrant greens of spring when the three friends – Naoko, Toru, and Kizuki – are together in high school. With the death of Kizuki and the subsequent deepening of Naoko and Toru’s friendship, we enter the golden tones of summer, only to arrive at the harsh, steely hues of winter in the sanitorium. It is here, in Naoko’s sanitorium, where she battles for her fragile mental health but eventually melts away into its misty landscape, that some of the starkest and yet most strikingly beautiful scenes take place.

The lighting is almost a supporting character, helping the storyline forward. Mark Lee Ping-bing, the movie’s Cannes-winning Taiwanese cameraman, has shot with Trần before. Here, their artistic choices diverged during the love scenes. Trần Anh Hùng insisted on a digital HD camera with tight close-ups of the actors’ faces, to focus on the emotion. The result is a surprising change in texture from one scene to the next, but one where it does fully expose the actors. We see it all at once: their youth and desire as well as the flaws that age will bring if they allow time to flow its course. The raw, brute images cuts a swathe through the beautifully perfect youth of the characters.

The love story was filmed with an entirely Japanese cast despite the fact that Trần knows not a word of Japanese. He created a meticulous and painstaking process to achieve the dialogue he imagined. He wrote the script out in French, had it translated into English, before getting it adapted into Japanese, and then listened to it spoken to make sure it was melodic and not too clipped: “I wanted it to be longer than usual . . . to have the music of the lines. I don’t like when sentences are short and going very fast . . . Even in my Vietnamese movies, it does not sound natural like in life.”

For many, Norwegian wood is Trần Anh Hùng’s best film yet. His themes of youth and lost innocence are supported by Murakami’s storytelling that teeters on the edge of oneirism and buoyed, some say crushed, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s score that heavily features the 70s German band, Can. Most of the songs in the movie come from their classic years when their lead singer was the Japanese Suzuki, adding to the fortuitous charm of the entire film. The Beatles eponymous classic however makes little more than a cameo in the film. “It’s only that the song is too soft, too cute, too sentimental. What happens with the characters is really stronger than that song,” Trần said. “I put the song at the end of the movie because it works like the beginning of the book.”

Trần has said that this story about new love easily transcends borders. “It’s about the pain you feel when you are in the process of love. Love is growing and suddenly something stops it.”

Many thanks to the articles in the Associated Press, Arte, The Guardian.

Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.

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  1. This is great. You do what should be routine but is rare, to give a time series with no gaps and then focus on select films. This grounding deftly avoids the usual claptrap about how exotic and Vietnamesey the director is. Thanks!

  2. As a huge fan of both Haruki Murakami and Trần Anh Hùng works, I’ve read the numerous film reviews of Norwegian Wood eagerly awaiting the film’s release in the United States. Thank you for writing this piece! Thus far your review has been the only one to put the movie so firmly in context of Trần’s other films.

    Out of curiosity: what’s your favorite film by Trần Anh Hùng? And what’s your favorite Murakami book?

    • I’m glad the piece was able to bring something new. I am very sentimental and my favorite works are always the ones with which I discover an artist. So to answer, it would have to be Mùi đu đủ xanh and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles because they opened a door into dangerously beautiful universes that I would happily inhabit indefinitely. Both artists have the uncanny ability to sublimate the mundane trivia of daily life into a rarefied, engineered perfection.

  3. The best film-review that I’ve read in a long time. Like the soft light and pastel colors of the film (I happened to see it in Hanoi’s Vincom multiplex last January) Ly Lan, with grace and sagacity, seeps into the soul of the Trần Anh Hùng and his characters’ to unfold the serendipituous encounter between the film and its viewers.


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