The Oscar-nominated director, who has taken home prizes from both Cannes and Venice, filmed the love story with an entirely Japanese cast.
Tran told reporters last Thursday, the day his film is premiering at the Venice Film Festival in competition for the Golden Lion, that he didn't try to make a Japanese film — and in fact sought a set design that would not be completely familiar to Japanese audiences.
"I want the Japanese viewer to have a different take and see their own decor in a different way, that it is somewhat exotic and different in their eyes," Tran said. He called in a set designer from previous movies who would understand his aims.
"Otherwise this staggered view would not have been possible with just a troupe that was completely Japanese."
The film, like the 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 by Haruki Murakami 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."'
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.