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Norwegian Wood -- Film Review

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VENICE -- The fact that "Norwegian Wood" is based on Haruki Murakami's 1987 international best-seller should encourage many viewers to give this long, elegantly shot, sporadically involving Japanese film a try. But not all will have the patience to let themselves be caught up in more than two hours of teenage love and sex, however gorgeous the cast.

A coming-of-age story set during the late 1960s, when all the world was abuzz with change, the film's intense poetry and lush visuals should in any case bring director Tran Anh Hung ("Cyclo," "The Scent of Green Papaya") back to the festival scene and earn elite art house berths.

Far from the lighthearted, easy sentiments of mainstream teen movies, here the seven main protagonists suffer from depression and the kind of unresolvable complexes that make psychiatrists rich. The first suicide is Kizuki (Kengo Kora), a lithe young man of ethereal beauty, whose early demise is as surprising as Lea Massari's disappearance in the first reel of "L'Avventura."

Shaken by the tragedy, Kizuki's best friend, 19-year-old narrator Watanabe (played by rising young actor Kenichi Matsuyama), flees to Tokyo, where he works part time while attending college. One day, he bumps into Kizuki's girlfriend, Kaoko (Rinko Kikuchi of "Babel"), a silent, introverted beauty filled with a haunting, funereal melancholy, not to mention extreme mental fragility.

His attraction to the mysterious girl grows until, on her 20th birthday, they make love. When he says something wrong, reminding her of her lost love, she vanishes.

Around this time, Watanabe becomes acquainted with the pixielike student Midori (newcomer Kiko Mizuhara), who brings a ray of sunshine into his life. Although she talks dirty, humorously taunting the somber Watanabe, Midori knows her own mind and decides to wait until the boy is psychologically free to love her.

Then Kaoko resurfaces in a remote country clinic, summoning Watanabe to her side. He lets himself be pulled between extremes by the two women, in whom it isn't hard to read the symbols for life and death. Such is adolescence.

The second part of the film deepens as Watanabe confronts the egoism of his playboy friend Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and condemns his callous treatment of his aristocratic girlfriend Hatsumi. About the same time, he realizes that his task is to face up to his own feelings, take responsibility for his actions and "become an adult." All of which he does by the film's final embrace.

Superb cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin creates a web of visual sensitivity that accompanies the characters on their emotional journey. From the magic ancient world of nature in Kyoto to the majestic violence of the storming sea, there is much to feast the eyes on. The well-chosen, never-trite music ranges from familiar '60s tunes, which tend to be abruptly cut off, to aching orchestral accompaniment. The title song is heard twice: once hauntingly played by Kaoko's beautiful music teacher (Reika Kirishima) and a satisfyingly complete version, played over the closing credits by the Beatles.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Fuji Television
Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Reika Kirishima, Kengo Kora, Eriko Hatsune, Tetsuji Tamayama
Director-screenwriter: Tran Anh Hung
Based on the novel "Norwegian Wood" by: Haruki Murakami Producer: Shinji Ogawa
Executive producers: Michael J. Werner, Wouter Barendrecht
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping Bin
Production designer: Yen KheLuguern
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Costumes: Yen KheLuguern
Editor: Mario Battistel
No rating, 133 minutes
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films