In the mid ‘90s, Vietnamese-born writer/director Tran Anh Hung, already nominated for an Oscar for his 1993 film The Scent of Green Papaya, wrote a letter to Haruki Murakami asking if he could adapt the Japanese author’s hugely successful coming-of-age novel Norwegian Wood—about college student Toru Watanabe’s loves and losses in ‘60s Tokyo—for the silver screen. Murakami agreed, even going so far as to collaborate on the English-language screenplay with the Hung. The result, out now, has already won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and looks poised for an Oscar run. We called Tran in Paris and asked him about the lingua franca of cinema, the perils of financing, and man’s unwavering need to save the princess.
What is it about this book that connected with and felt personal to you?
Murakami has this special quality in that he can get very intimate with the reader. When I read this book I had the feeling that it somehow revealed something to me of myself, something deeply buried inside of me.
There is something so elemental about his writing—base, almost—that definitely does add to the sense of intimacy. And seems optimal for adaptation to the screen. Did you see it all right away?
When I read the book I didn’t have an image of the movie I would make. That’s something that comes very late. It’s really when I have everyone with me that I start to frame the scene or move the camera. It’s something that is very intuitive.
It’s amazing that the movie feels like a piece of Murakami’s canon—set in his world, but is clearly animated by your sensibility. So, the impossible question: How on earth did you do that?
Something very important to me is what I call the music I have inside of me. Everything I’m doing, I have to put it next to this music and feel if it’s right or wrong. It’s the way I can evaluate if something is well done or not—if the shot is good or not, the take … it’s always related to this music, the body, rhythm. It’s something I feel physically inside of me. I can only trust this.
When you were in film school in Paris you made a conscious decision not to become a tradesman within that industry and work your way up, but to pursue a more hermetic purity. How were you able to wall yourself off from that—you know, just from needing a paycheck to survive? Has that strength fortified you when movies fell apart because of Adrien Brody?
[laughs] I think it’s something much more humble than you say. I can only do what I can do. Of course I would like to be working constantly, but it’s not my way to make movies. Between my third and fourth movie there was eight years. Between my second and third, five years. And of course there were lots of projects that collapsed in between. I wish I could make a movie every two years; that would fit with my rhythm. But I don’t think it’s purity. I think it’s the difficulty today to finance a movie.
The movie takes place during the characters’ university years. Are you still in touch with that time in your life? Was that an important time for you?
Not at all. I was at that stage of my life when I adapted the book, that’s the important part. It’s about falling in love and that vivid moment when I was 20. But at the same time I am an older man now, so I have to express the feelings of melancholy of the man I am today looking back on that time. It’s like poetry. You have to treat it simply and hope poetry will come out of it.
When I read the book I thought the real tragedy was that these young people were forced to experience the kind of loss normally reserved for us when we’re older. But you said something that really hit me: That this story, like all stories, is about the tragedy of a man’s feeling that he can save a woman.
I think that we all feel that. Men all have that crazy illusion. I don’t know where it comes from but I know it is very true as a feeling. That’s why Watanabe’s character was very touching. He tries to save [love interest] Noako. And he fails. But it is really difficult at that point in the movie to express—not to make people understand, but to make people feel—that somehow Watanabe reconciles with life.
That is a really powerful statement in the movie: Choose life.
Can you tell us about the French book you are adapting, or is still top secret?
It’s still a secret. I will adapt a French book—it has nothing to do with me—about the bourgeoisie at the end of the 19th century. It’s about giving birth … I think it will change the way I’m making movies, so it’s very important to me.