Those were the best years of our lives. Every once in a while when the weather gets melancholic, we would reminiscence those years when loss and sexuality meant a whole lot more. Every once in a while when we hear a morose tune on the radio, we would recall those moments when relationships mattered a whole lot more. And every once in a while when we watch a moody film, we would remember those times when life played out like a cinematic feature.
All that remains now is nostalgia.
And that is why, critically acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's novels spoke to so many people. His works poignantly captures the spiritual emptiness of the modern generation and explores the loss of human connection in the bustling society we live in today. And just when detractors thought that Murakami's bestselling 1987 novel was un-filmable, along comes Tran Anh Hung, whose past works include the award winning Cyclo (1995) and The Scent of Green Papaya (1993).
Set in Tokyo during the late 1960s, the film's male protagonist is Toru, a quiet and serious college student. He loses his best friend to suicide, and his personal life is thrown into turmoil. He becomes emotionally closer to his friend's ex-girlfriend Naoko, who shares the same sense of loss. Circumstances bring Naoko to a sanatorium, and Toru becomes devastated. Another girl, Midori, enters his life, and he realises that she is everything Naoko isn't. Torn between two women and feeling empty about life's past and future, what ensues is Toru's nostalgic journey of loss and sexuality.
The above synopsis probably doesn't do justice to Murakami's writing, which is known to be humorous and surrealistic. While we haven't read the original novel which this 133 minute film is based on, we have chanced upon Murakami's other works, and we must recognize Tran's decision to adapt the story into a feature film.
The first thing which grabs you is the hypnotically mesmerizing cinematography by the award winning Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood For Love, Three Times). The breathtaking mountainous landscapes of Japan are captured on Lee's lenses like gems. You can imagine yourself wandering through the green grasslands and the snowy grounds, letting the spectacle engulf your senses. To replicate the mood of 1960s, production designers Norifumi Ataka and Yen Khe Luguem have painstakingly created scene after scene of the film's characters journeying through life's alleys against backdrops of intricately decorated cafes, workshops and hostel rooms. The result is a visually pleasing mood piece which displays the director's eye for details. The soundtrack composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood completes the viewing experience with an enigmatic score.
Also commendable are the cast's performances. Playing Toru is Kenichi Matsuyama (Death Note's "L"). He has an empathetic vulnerability which leaves a lasting impression with viewers. Rinko Kichuki (Babel) displays the much needed frailty of Naoko's character without becoming overly melodramatic, while newcomer Kiko Mizuhara is charming as the charismatic Midori.
Like most literary adaptation, this film loses some of the novel's poignancy when it comes to character and plot development. Emotions are conveyed through convenient voiceovers, and the exploration of sexuality may appear preposterous to those who uninitiated to Murakami's works. Furthermore, the slow and meandering pacing of the two odd hour film may be a test of patience to some.
It will take audiences who are familiar with the postmodern writer's work to appreciate this film. If you are an individual who often indulges in poetic wistfulness, this may just be the perfect film for you on a contemplative evening too.