From Yan Liang: Q & A with Norwegian Wood director Tran Anh Hung

I read Norwegian Wood in the Mandarin translation about 10 years ago with tears, laughter and curiosity about Japanese culture. Millions of other readers, too, have been affected not only by the novel’s delicate and melancholic writing style but also by its universal subjects of youth, first love and death. As the author Haruki Marukami says, it is a 100% love story. This book and the author became a phenomenon in China when the book appeared in translation.

Novalist Haruki Murakami

I have also read that since the novel has sold over 10 million copies in Japan itself. There were many directors eager to adapt it to the big screen, but the author had no wish to do so until 2006, almost twenty years after the novel first appeared. Even more surprising is that he selected the French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Born in Vietnam in 1961, Tran fled for France with his family when he was 12 years old. His film debut, The Scent of Green Papaya (1993) won him an international reputation, and his second film Cyclo won the Golden Lion in 1995.

His film Norwegian Wood was presented in competition at the Venice International Film Festival in August 2010 and officially released in Japan in December.

Director Tran An Hung; Photo: Yan Liang

Tran Anh Hung brought the film to Montreal during the Festival du Nouveau Cinema URL this month. Sitting on the terrace of a small hotel at the corner of St-Laurent Boulevard and Sherbrooke Street on a rainy autumn afternoon, Tran Ahn Huang looked small and spoke with soft voice. He smiled all the time as we talked.

YL: Norwegian Wood is an extremely popular novel internationally. Did you feel a lot of pressure adapting the novel for the screen?

TAH: Adapting a move is an interpretation that you present to the audience. To those who have a really precise idea of the book, I would say, Ok you have it. And if they go to see the movie, they will find another point of view confronting their own point of view. It could be interesting for them. But it’s absolutely up to the audience.

YL: In early 90s, you discovered this novel, and you wanted to make it a movie. Do you still remember your first impressions of the novel? Why did it appeal to you so much?

TAH: There were two things. One was that I was moved. The novel touched something very deep inside of me. Secondly, the book somehow suggested to me that it would be a good movie to make. Of course I read a lot of books looking for possible movies, and it’s very hard to find one that you really like. But this novel, it was clear to me it would make a good movie. That was so clear, and I was sure of that, even if it was all very vague in the very beginning.

YL: Could you picture characters or scenes in your mind from the start?

TAH: I never try to imagine the characters or scenes before the shoot. There were just feelings. All of the specifics, including images, I find at the last moment. When everybody is there, on the set, that’s when I try to find the frame, find a way to shoot the scene. It’s not something I have in my head in advance.

YL: The book was published in 1987, and the author had no intention of making a movie out of it for a very long time. When did you talk to him and gave him your proposal?

TAH: It was really simple. I think maybe for him it was time to let this novel go. He just had two questions. One is that he needed to read the script, which would allow him to know how I would adapt it. When I gave it to him, it was in English. He gave me a lot of notes. After that, he said: “OK, you are free to make a movie.” Then he wanted to know the budget.

YL: People have been surprised that he picked a Vietnamese-French director. Did he tell you why?

TAH: No, he never told me why. But I understand. When you make a movie, it has its own culture and nationality. It has its language. And you have to speak this language. So for him, it was not important that I am not Japanese. He just looked at my films, and he might have found something that went with his book. Then he said, Yes. I think he saw all my movies.

YL: Even though film is universal, as a filmmaker you still have to understand the setting in the novel and its culture. How did you cross these barriers?

TAH: I never tried to understand Japanese culture, because to me it is impossible to understand some other cultures fully. I knew that. What I like is the differences. Of course I tried. I did read up on Japan. But I know I cannot understand fully. What is important is the humanity, what happens when you find love, what happens when you lose it, and what happens when someone you love dies. That’s more important than Japanese culture. And that’s why it was never a problem to me. I did have to have everything right – the costumes, the language, the behavior, the settings. I can see this in Japanese films as well.

YL: What is the biggest challenge in the whole process?

TAH: To make a good film. This is the only challenge to me.

YL: When I watch the film, I cannot help but compare it with the novel. As a novel, it is so rich and there are so many details. I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you to make choices. For example Midori is one of the main characters in the novel, but she is much less important in the film. How do you choose from a wealth of detail?

TAH: Well, it is matter of making everything clear for the audience, in terms of emotion. Anything that takes the audience away from the straight line of Watanabe’s development, I cut because you cannot suddenly stop the process of flowing from Watanabe’s thoughts and jump to recall the pianist and her student story. It is a great story, but you would lose your focus. That’s how I choose. I cut everything that doesn’t belong on this straight line. That’s very clear to me.

It took me a quite long time to write the script. It’s always like that because I am afraid of being on the wrong track. I try to avoid going wrong, because everything you put down on paper, you take a long time forgetting it, getting over it and getting something else. It’s difficult.

YL: After you finished the film, after the whole process and experience, do you think you understand more about the Japanese and their culture?

TAH: No, I don’t think so. The Japanese for me are stranger, more foreign, than any other people in the world. Mexicans may be less mysterious to me than Japanese even if I am from Asia. Their culture is something that only belongs to them. I actually didn’t learn anything that changes my knowledge about the Japanese people.

YL: As a fan of the book, I like your choice of the three main characters, Watanabe, Naoko and Midori. I imagine you are not familiar with Japanese actors, so how did you find them?

TAH: I met a lot of Japanese actors. I loved meeting them, as I didn’t have any images in my mind when I wrote the script. I also wanted to learn a little bit about the actor community. I focused on their humanity when they were auditioning. That’s what I always look for, in each of my films. When I feel that their humanity fits the role, I know this is the right person.

YL: Did you meet the author after the film? Has he seen it? What did he say?

TAH: Yes, he has seen it, and he has told me he likes it. His wife likes it too. But It is not for me to say that.

YL: How do Japanese audiences respond?

TAH: As with any film, some people like it some don’t. For readers of the novel, I think they should put the novel aside when they go to see the film, watch the movie as a work in itself, and then, if they don’t like the movie, they can trash it. No problem. But why would you watch the movie and compare it to the novel at the same time? You would miss the movie. It is not fair to the movie, and it is not good for them. This is my advice to readers of the novel.

YL: It has been seventeen years since you made your first film, The Scent of Green Papaya, and you have made a total of four movies. Do you try to control your working pace?

TAH: Not at all. To me it is reasonable to make a film every two years. But financing is getting harder and harder. It is not just me. Fewer and fewer investors in the film industry like art films. They like products that can sell. So if you don’t bring them a kind of formula production, they say no. I worked on two projects between my last two movies, over a period of about two years, but they collapsed in the end. The investors are not looking for talent; they’re looking for something that sells.

YL: How do you find it, being an Asian filmmaker in France, in the Western world?

TAH: Well, I feel myself - I mean I am a guy who is Vietnamese, living in France, making a Japanese movie. But Vietnamese culture is really deep inside me. Let’s say I enjoy watching Vietnamese women more than others. It’s something like that. I feel that I am a different man when I am in Vietnam compared with France. I feel that I’m not living my life fully in France, I feel as though my life is in suspension. It is not something I dislike, that’s just how it is. It is not comfortable, but I quite enjoy it because it keeps me open-minded and wide-awake.

YL: Norwegian Wood has been released in China. Have you had any feedback on the Chinese reaction?

TAH: I understand that China got two thousand copies of the film. I went to China to promote it, I know that there are huge fans there. But the problem is the censorship. The authorities cut 39 minutes from the film, which is crazy. I don’t even know what all they cut. We asked for a copy but we never got it.

In the theatre, when the credits were running, the music of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood played, “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” The film captures the melancholic and nostalgic tone of the novel. Tran says, “it is really about the idea of falling in love, how love can be suddenly dangerous, with so much pleasure and so much pain. It is universal. ” As he said film is an interpretation, and this is, after all, Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood.

Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood is slated for release across Canada this winter.


© Yan Liang 2011

Journalist Yan Liang
Photo: Li Zhao
Yan Liang is a prize-winning journalist and translator based in Montreal with more than ten years’ experience working in Canada and China. She presently works for Radio-Canada International (RCI) as a host and journalist. She was involved in several translation projects, such as Arthur Miller’s autobiography Time Bends (2010, Shanghai 99Read), Stan Douglas’s film transcript Journey into Fear (2004) and others.
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