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Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' transformed to film

Director Tran Anh Hung reacts during a photo call for the movie Norwegian Wood at the 67th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. Director Tran Anh Hung reacts during a photo call for the movie Norwegian Wood at the 67th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
By Colleen Barry
Associated Press Writer / September 2, 2010

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VENICE, Italy—Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung crossed cultural and linguistic borders to direct his latest film, "Norwegian Wood," based on the cult coming-of-age Japanese novel.

The Oscar-nominated director, who has taken home prizes from both Cannes and Venice, filmed the love story with an entirely Japanese cast -- creating a painstakingly long process to perfect dialogue.

"We killed several interpreters," Tran joked during an interview Thursday, ahead of the film's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in competition for the Golden Lion. "Sometimes when it was tough, the interpreter cried, because I asked her to say something really mean to an actress."

It is hard to imagine the slight, clean-cut director having said anything mean to any of the actresses. However, he did take painstaking care with the dialogue, writing out what he wanted in English, having it translated into Japanese, and then listening to it spoken to make sure it was melodic, and not too clipped.

"I wanted it to be longer than usual ... to have the music of the lines. I don't like when sentences are short and going very fast ... Even in my Vietnamese movies, it does not sound natural like in life," Tran said.

Seeing the film in another language also made it immediately clear to him when something didn't work -- and surrounded by a crew who spoke a foreign language meant he could filter out unnecessary chatter he would have otherwise engaged in.

The film, like Haruki Marukami's book, is set in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Watanabe, played by Kenichi Matsuyama, is a young university student struggling to choose between two women, one the girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide, and the other self-confident and independent, representing the future.

The novel has won worldwide popularity, and many directors had approached the author to adapt it to film. More than 10 million copies of the book have been sold in Japan alone, with 2.6 million more sold in another 33 languages.

Tran said he didn't know why he was chosen, but producer Shinji Ogawa said Murakami wanted an Asian director to project the region's aesthetic.

"Obviously we did meet with Murakami. Not just once," Tran said. Murakami made many notes on the first screen play, which Tran called "a fairly important document," but said they were too numerous to elaborate.

"After this exchange of comments and notes, Murakami said, 'Go with the film you have in your head. What you have to do is make the most beautiful film possible.'"

Tran said the story about new love easily transcends borders.

"It's about the pain you feel when you are in the process of love. Love is growing and suddenly something stops it. It happens twice to Watanabe," Tran said.

Much of the film was shot in urban Tokyo, giving a glimpse into the turbulent 1960s, a period when Japanese youth were opening their embrace to the West in rejection of their fathers' conduct during World War II. But Tran also goes into the countryside, taking the story to the lush grassy meadows and barren, snow-dusted hillsides -- the landscape echoing the mood of the protagonists.

Tran's direction put the camera's tightly on the actors' faces, particularly the love scenes, where he said he wanted the focus to be on the emotion. He asked his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing to use a digital HD camera to shoot the film -- a decision that Lee, a Cannes-winning Taiwanese cameraman, has complained about in a new book.

Tran said Lee's views were clear during the filming, but he stuck by his decision to go high definition in order to expose the actors -- and their flaws -- more.

"It's really raw, you can really see everything. It's really necessary for this film," he said.

Viewers may be surprised that the Beatles classic from which the book takes its name makes little more than a cameo in the film.

"It's only that the song is too soft, too cute, too sentimental. What happens with the characters is really stronger than that song," Tran said. "I put the song at the end of the movie because it works like the beginning of the book."

"Norwegian Wood" is among 22 films, plus a still-to-be announced surprise film, competing for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded Sept. 11.

Tran won the Golden Lion in 1995 for "Cyclo," which tells the hard-life tale of a young rickshaw driver, and his first film, "The Scent of Green Papaya," took home the Camera d'Or from Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award. "Norwegian Wood" is his fifth film.

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