Haruki Murakami’s 1987 bildungsroman Norwegian Wood has long been considered unfilmable, and French-Vietnamese writer-director Anh Hung Tran’s attempt strongly supports that case. Moody, meandering, and glacially paced, the film tells the story of Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a somewhat gloomy college student negotiating love and life in late 1960s Japan. He’s got a right to be glum, however. His best friend, Kizuki, killed himself, a tragedy that he and his friend’s girl, Naoka (Rinko Kikuchi), can’t completely escape. And there are more suicides to come.
After Kizuki’s death, Watanabe moved from his small town to Tokyo in an attempt to disappear. His strategy works until he runs into Naoka and they begin spending time together, at first never mentioning Kizuki. Eventually, though, Naoka breaks down and decides to try to heal in a reclusive rural institution. Watanabe visits her, but in the meantime he also meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a forward, cheerier, and very pretty classmate who keeps him distracted between trips.
Norwegian Wood likes to jump around throughout its 133 minutes, with characters like Watanabe’s Casanova roommate (Tetsuji Tamayama) appearing seemingly out of nowhere to linger for a while and then vanish again. Many scenes are so languorous they feel like visual Ambien, particularly Watanabe and Naoka’s hyperextended date on her 20th birthday, during which shots of them eating in quiet pass for action. Much of the film lacks a soundtrack, though the titular Beatles song is partially sung, of course, and when the score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood kicks in—lots of strings, some of them discordant—it usually fits the story’s tone.
Atmospherics, in fact, are Norwegian Wood’s strongest suit. The love scenes swim beneath a dark blue wash, though there are so many they eventually feel like a less interesting Avatar. Tran’s outdoor shots are better. Aided by cinematographer Ping Bin Lee, the director presents gorgeous imagery each time Watanabe visits Naoka, from lushly green, hilly fields that Naoka speed-walks through while delicately discussing their relationship, to stark winter scenes when her condition deteriorates. Good looks and a few sharply observed sentiments don’t save the muddled narrative, however. Sometimes a story should stay on the page.