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For many Japanese readers — and readers around the world too, actually — Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is one of those novels, a book read during youth that somehow defines, at least for a few years, your inner self. Like Catcher in the Rye, it’s a book readers feel they have an intimate relationship with, which makes it also a tough film adaptation. A filmmaker can always do the plot and the characters, but what about capturing that something else?

With his adaptation of Murakami’s 1987 novel, director Tran Anh Hung (Cyclo, The Scent of the Green Papaya) has shaken off any possible qualms about tackling such a loved work of fiction. His adaptation has an elegant beauty to it that honors Murakami’s story while also being true to his own filmmaking style.

Set mostly in the 1960s, Norwegian Wood is the story of a young college student, Toru, and his relationship with two women. Naoko is the girlfriend of his best friend, who commits suicide. After the boy’s death, Toru and Naoko fall in love but their relationship can’t survive her dark feelings following the suicide. She commits herself to a sanitarium in the woods, where Toru sometimes visits. Meanwhile back in Tokyo, Toru falls in love with another girl, the happy, free-spirited Midori, but his ability to be with her is compromised by his feelings for the moody Naoko.

In the short conversation below, I spoke to Hung about the challenges of adapting Murakami, the pressures of adapting well-loved books, and the differences he experienced while shooting in Japan for the first time. The film’s trailer is below as well.

Norwegian Wood is currently playing in New York at the IFC Center.

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