This Japanese adaptation of Haruki Murakami's bestseller is gorgeous and sensual, says Peter Bradshaw
Forbidden love is the sexiest kind, and love of death the most forbidden kind, in this emoish erotic tragedy from Franco-Vietnamese film-maker Tran Anh Hung, based on the bestselling 1987 novel by Haruki Murakami.
It is set in Tokyo in the late 1960s – a world of student dorms, going for walks, getting letters from your girlfriend, sitting in your student room looking at LP sleeves while the record is playing; it's a world of sexual and romantic excitement that is a cousin to widespread political unrest. Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a student who begins a relationship with Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), a beautiful, delicate young woman whom he knew a year before, in high school. But while Watanabe works towards his degree, Naoko is in a remote psychological facility, suffering from a breakdown, able to receive Watanabe only infrequently as a visitor.
What binds them together – in a dark ecstasy of despair – is an inexpressibly painful event in their past, a terrible, mutual loss. It is holding them back in life, and threatens to smother and paralyse them. But Watanabe and Naoko find themselves trying to forge a conjugal, sacramental bond with this past and, perhaps, with death itself. Attempting to fall in love with each other, as damaged souls, is a way of giving a narrative purpose and a moral grandeur to their lives, which another, more uncomplicated kind of dating could not possibly achieve. Their relationship almost attains the status of a suicide pact in which both partners are left alive.
As if the situation were not complicated enough, Watanabe also finds himself attracted to Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a smart, sexy, free-spirited girl on campus who appears to represent a healthy and psychologically unencumbered future. However, Midori is cool, a little cruel – a flirt and a tease. She, too, has her secret world of pain. When she suffers a loss, she demands that Watanabe take her to a porn film to dull the pain. But for Watanabe, perhaps, this is not exactly the point. The pain is the porn.
This movie is gorgeously photographed by Ping Bin Lee, and has a plangent, keening orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood. It rewards attention with a very sensual experience, although there might be some who, understandably, find it indulgent. Having watched it now a second time since its premiere at last year's Venice film festival, I find the film that came into my mind – apart of course from Twilight – was Wong Kar-Wai's romantic classic In the Mood for Love (which Ping Bin Lee also shot), about two people drawn together by their respective partners' infidelities. That has the same tragedy, irony and romance which combine to create a doomy eroticism. Norwegian Wood ignites its own fierce, moth-attracting flame. [www.guardian.co.uk]