I read Norwegian Wood in the Mandarin translation about 10 years
ago with tears, laughter and curiosity about Japanese culture. Millions
of other readers, too, have been affected not only by the novel’s delicate and
melancholic writing style but also by its universal subjects of youth, first
love and death. As the author Haruki Marukami says, it is a 100% love story.
This book and the author became a phenomenon in China when the book appeared in
Novalist Haruki Murakami
I have also read that since the novel has
sold over 10 million copies in Japan itself. There were many directors eager to
adapt it to the big screen, but the author had no wish to do so until 2006,
almost twenty years after the novel first appeared. Even more surprising is
that he selected the French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.
Born in Vietnam in
1961, Tran fled for France with his family when he was 12 years old. His film
debut, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) won him an international
reputation, and his second film Cyclo won the Golden Lion in 1995.
His film Norwegian
Wood was presented in competition at the Venice International Film Festival
in August 2010 and officially released in Japan in December.
Director Tran An Hung; Photo: Yan Liang
Tran Anh Hung brought the film to Montreal
during the Festival du Nouveau Cinema URL
this month. Sitting on the terrace of a small hotel at the corner of
St-Laurent Boulevard and Sherbrooke Street on a rainy autumn afternoon, Tran
Ahn Huang looked small and spoke with soft voice. He smiled all the time as we talked.
YL: Norwegian Wood is an extremely
popular novel internationally. Did you feel a lot of pressure adapting the
novel for the screen?
TAH: Adapting a move is an interpretation
that you present to the audience. To those who have
a really precise idea of the book, I would say, Ok you have it.
And if they go
to see the movie, they will find another point of view confronting their own
point of view. It could be interesting for them. But it’s absolutely up to the
YL: In early 90s, you discovered this novel,
and you wanted to make it a movie. Do you still remember your first impressions
of the novel? Why did it appeal to you so much?
TAH: There were two things. One was that I
was moved. The novel touched something very deep inside of me. Secondly, the
book somehow suggested to me that it would be a good movie to make. Of course I
read a lot of books looking for possible movies, and it’s very hard to find one
that you really like. But this novel, it was clear to me it would make a good
movie. That was so clear, and I was sure of that, even if it was all very vague
in the very beginning.
YL: Could you picture characters or scenes in
your mind from the start?
TAH: I never try to imagine the characters or
scenes before the shoot. There were just feelings. All of the specifics,
including images, I find at the last moment. When everybody is there, on the
set, that’s when I try to find the frame, find a way to shoot the
scene. It’s not something I have in my head in advance.
YL: The book was published in 1987, and
the author had no intention of making a movie out of it for a very long time.
When did you talk to him and gave him your proposal?
TAH: It was really simple. I think maybe for
him it was time to let this novel go. He just had two questions. One is that he
needed to read the script, which would allow him to know how I would adapt it.
When I gave it to him, it was in English. He gave me a lot of notes. After
that, he said: “OK, you are free to make a movie.” Then he wanted to know the
YL: People have been surprised that he picked
a Vietnamese-French director. Did he tell you why?
TAH: No, he never told me why. But I
understand. When you make a movie, it has its own culture and nationality. It
has its language. And you have to speak this language. So for him, it was not
important that I am not Japanese. He just looked at my films, and he might have
found something that went with his book. Then he said, Yes. I think he saw
all my movies.
YL: Even though film is universal, as a
filmmaker you still have to understand the setting in the novel and its
culture. How did you cross these barriers?
TAH: I never tried to understand Japanese
culture, because to me it is impossible to understand some other cultures
fully. I knew that. What I like is the differences. Of course I tried. I did
read up on Japan. But I know I cannot understand fully. What is important is
the humanity, what happens when you find love, what happens when you lose it,
and what happens when someone you love dies. That’s more important than
Japanese culture. And that’s why it was never a problem to me. I did have to
have everything right – the costumes, the language, the behavior, the settings.
I can see this in Japanese films as well.
YL: What is the biggest challenge in the
TAH: To make a good film. This is the only
challenge to me.
YL: When I watch the film, I cannot
help but compare it with the novel. As a novel, it is so rich and there are so
many details. I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you to make choices.
For example Midori is one of the main characters in the novel, but she is much
less important in the film. How do you choose from a wealth of detail?
TAH: Well, it is matter of making everything
clear for the audience, in terms of emotion. Anything that takes the audience
away from the straight line of Watanabe’s development, I cut because you cannot
suddenly stop the process of flowing from Watanabe’s thoughts and jump to
recall the pianist and her student story. It is a great story, but you would
lose your focus. That’s how I choose. I cut everything that doesn’t belong on
this straight line. That’s very clear to me.
It took me a quite long time to write the
script. It’s always like that because I am afraid of being on the wrong track.
I try to avoid going wrong, because everything you put down on paper, you take
a long time forgetting it, getting over it and getting something else. It’s
YL: After you finished the film, after
the whole process and experience, do you think you understand more about the
Japanese and their culture?
TAH: No, I don’t think so. The Japanese for
me are stranger, more foreign, than any other people in the world. Mexicans may
be less mysterious to me than Japanese even if I am from Asia. Their culture is
something that only belongs to them. I actually didn’t learn anything that
changes my knowledge about the Japanese people.
YL: As a fan of the book, I like your choice
of the three main characters, Watanabe, Naoko and Midori. I imagine you are not
familiar with Japanese actors, so how did you find them?
TAH: I met a lot of Japanese actors. I loved
meeting them, as I didn’t have any images in my mind when I wrote the script. I
also wanted to learn a little bit about the actor community. I focused on their
humanity when they were auditioning. That’s what I always look for, in each of
my films. When I feel that their humanity fits the role, I know this is the
YL: Did you meet the author after the film?
Has he seen it? What did he say?
TAH: Yes, he has seen it, and he has told me
he likes it. His wife likes it too. But It is not for me to say that.
YL: How do Japanese audiences respond?
TAH: As with any film, some people like it
some don’t. For readers of the novel, I think they should put the novel aside
when they go to see the film, watch the movie as a work in itself, and then, if
they don’t like the movie, they can trash it. No problem. But why would you
watch the movie and compare it to the novel at the same time? You would miss
the movie. It is not fair to the movie, and it is not good for them. This is my
advice to readers of the novel.
YL: It has been seventeen years since you
made your first film, The Scent of Green
Papaya, and you have made a total of four movies. Do you try to control
your working pace?
TAH: Not at all. To me it is reasonable to
make a film every two years. But financing is getting harder and harder. It is
not just me. Fewer and fewer investors in the film industry like art films.
They like products that can sell. So if you don’t bring them a kind of formula
production, they say no. I worked on two projects between my last two movies,
over a period of about two years, but they collapsed in the end. The investors
are not looking for talent; they’re looking for something that sells.
YL: How do you find it, being an Asian
filmmaker in France, in the Western world?
TAH: Well, I feel myself - I mean I am a guy
who is Vietnamese, living in France, making a Japanese movie. But Vietnamese culture
is really deep inside me. Let’s say I enjoy watching Vietnamese women more than
others. It’s something like that. I feel that I am a different man when I am in
Vietnam compared with France. I feel that I’m not living my life fully in
France, I feel as though my life is in suspension. It is not something I
dislike, that’s just how it is. It is not comfortable, but I quite enjoy it
because it keeps me open-minded and wide-awake.
YL: Norwegian Wood has been
released in China. Have you had any feedback on the Chinese reaction?
TAH: I understand that China got two thousand
copies of the film. I went to China to promote it, I know that there are huge
fans there. But the problem is the censorship. The authorities cut 39 minutes
from the film, which is crazy. I don’t even know what all they cut. We asked
for a copy but we never got it.
In the theatre, when the credits were
running, the music of The Beatles’ Norwegian
Wood played, “I once had a girl,
or should I say, she once had me.” The film captures the melancholic and
nostalgic tone of the novel. Tran says, “it is really about the idea of falling
in love, how love can be suddenly dangerous, with so much pleasure and so much
pain. It is universal. ” As he said film is an interpretation, and this is,
after all, Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian
Tran Anh Hung’s
Norwegian Wood is slated for release across Canada this winter.
© Yan Liang 2011
Journalist Yan Liang
Photo: Li Zhao
Liang is a prize-winning journalist and translator based in Montreal with more
than ten years’ experience working in Canada and China. She presently works for
Radio-Canada International (RCI) as a host and journalist. She was involved in
several translation projects, such as Arthur Miller’s autobiography Time Bends (2010, Shanghai 99Read),
Stan Douglas’s film transcript Journey
into Fear (2004) and others.