When Tran Anh Hung enters the room for an interview with The Japan Times, a hush falls among the people gathered there. The staff speak in low, gentle tones and their gestures seem restrained.
“It’s probably because I’m very sensitive to the sound of spoken words and peoples’ voices,” says the Vietnam-born director in English. “So now, when I come to Japan for work, everyone tends to speak softly. I’m in awe of their graciousness.”
Tran, 54, is best-known in this country for his 2010 adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s best-selling novel “Norwegian Wood,” a two-volume work originally published in 1987. Before his film there had been whispers of a different kind. For decades, rumors floated around that some veteran Japanese filmmaker could make his or her mark on the international film stage by tackling an adaptation and taking it to the Cannes Film Festival. Others whispered that a successful film version of the story was just not possible.
“For years I had wanted to tell the story of ‘Norwegian Wood,” says Tran, who had read the novel in French. “But I didn’t want it to be an ‘international’ film, with Western actors and English dialogue. That would have destroyed the ambience. So I decided to do it in Japanese, with a Japanese cast. It was an adventure, since I did not speak the language at all.”
Not speaking the language had never been a problem for Tran, though. He picked up English only after making his feature film debut in 1993 with “The Scent of Green Papaya.”
“After that, demands to make speeches and give interviews became pressing,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘OK I should really learn English, otherwise I won’t be able to work on an international scale.'”
On the set of “Norwegian Wood,” Tran would first read the French script (translated from Japanese) and then listen intently to the dialogue of the Japanese cast, which included Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Kiko Mizuhara. He’d pick out words and phrases that sounded “not in keeping” with the emotions of the scene, and would then ask his Japanese staff to change the words, but not the meaning, and then he’d listen to the dialogue again.
“It was an arduous process but I’ve always wanted to challenge the audience perception of what a foreign film looks and sounds like and to make them enjoy the films, not with critical reasoning but with their senses,” he says. “Often, body language and facial expressions speak more than words.”
Tran applied the same method during a stint with Kose Cosmetics, when he was in Japan to direct a TV commercial celebrating the company’s 70th anniversary. He worked with well-known Japanese actresses and collaborated on the soundtrack with J Soul Brothers — again, carefully listening to the sounds of people’s conversations before giving directions.
“I like to recognize the currents of emotion going around on the set,” Tran says. “Maybe that’s the film director’s most important job.”
Tran was born in the Vietnamese city of Danan in 1962 and immigrated to Paris when he was 12, just before the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. He is by far the most acclaimed filmmaker to come out of that country, and his debut, “The Scent of Green Papaya,” has a sizable Japanese fan base.
“It was a meditation on life in Asia, the way it used to be in my memories,” Tran explains. “I think that’s why the Japanese liked it. People told me the film gave them a strong sense of nostalgia. For me, and for everyone, there comes a point when you realize that nothing will bring back the past.”
Tran fell in love with Japanese culture while he was studying in Paris, and was especially enamoured with the writings of Yasunari Kawabata.
“When I read a Kawabata novel, I would lose myself in the small details. For example, to evoke sexuality Kawabata would write about the traces of lipstick on a teacup, set down on a low table. The woman wasn’t there, and yet the entire scene was charged with her erotic presence. This is what I want to express in my own films, to evoke and suggest rather than reveal or expose.”
On the other hand, Tran is no stranger to playing cinematic hardball. The 1995 film “Cyclo” is about poverty and life on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. “I Come With the Rain” (2009) stars former SMAP star Takuya Kimura and Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnett in a tale of sex and brutality in Hong Kong.
“Whatever the subject, I think that I’m most at home in an Asian setting,” Tran says. “Which is a little strange considering I’ve lived most of my life in France. I’ve had to re-experience Asian life, like the humidity in the air and the way people interacted with one another, the infinite details that make up daily life. Though I have been told that my stories aren’t really Asian, but a collage of all that is exotic about Asia. Maybe so. But I’ve always held that art is the truth wearing a mask.”
He recently returned to his adopted home country of France to direct his first French-language film, “Eternity.”
“It has taken me this long, but I felt it was time for me to make a French film,” Tran says. His wife, Tran Nu Yen Khe, does the voice-over French narration.
“To me, the sound of her voice and enunciation were in perfect keeping with the story, even though there’s not a shred of anything Asian in it,” he says. “It’s interesting, how things work out on a film set.”
“Eternity” stars French actresses Audrey Tautou and Melanie Laurent, and Argentinian actress Berenice Bejo. The film examines several generations of women in a single family across one century as they experience life’s joy and pain. It’s easily the most elegant of Tran’s movies, which is saying a lot.
“The point in my films is to give the actors dialogue and emotions that they can savor like delicious food,” Tran says. “I want the cast to feel nourished and sensual, like they’re part of a carefully orchestrated banquet. That kind of crafted sensuality is so hard to depict on screen. Some people say that my films are not natural, but to me when a character is being nothing but natural, they lose all charm. I mean, if I wanted natural, I would sooner just go talk to my neighbor.”
“Eternity” opens in cinemas nationwide on Sept. 30. For more information, visit www.eternity-movie.jp.