By David D’Arcy
The brilliant Drive My Car is about many things, but at its core the film is an exploration of loss.
Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
Literary and humane, Drive My Car, a three-hour film in Japanese (and a few other Asian languages), has been harvesting praise from reviewers since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s already opened and screenings are spreading across the US. Critics are still piling on the praise, which is deserved.
Drive My Car, adapted (and expanded) from a short story by Haruki Murakami, is a film that explores how life echoes art, or doesn’t, and how people deal or don’t deal with loss. If that sounds broad, it is. If that sounds ambitious, it’s that too.
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film begins with two characters in a married couple in their 40s, dour actor/stage director Yusuke Kakufu (Hidetoshi Nishijima), owner of a red Saab 900, and his wife, TV writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Oto dies suddenly less than 40 minutes into the film — it is not a formal trick, but a jolt that reverberates throughout the entire narrative. In another improbable touch, Hamaguchi runs the opening credits at around the same time. This is a movie that moves along on its own terms.
Oto had a habit of telling Yusuke about the stories she’s writing while she had sex with him — auditioning them, you could say — which he then repeated back to her later. Married couples do have a way of finishing each other’s sentences. Yet, in one of the film’s revelatory moments, we learn that Oto’s sex life wasn’t limited to those conversations. When a flight is canceled, Yusuke returns home unexpectedly and finds her in bed with a man. He leaves without interrupting them. Oto’s infidelities were not the only challenge to this marriage of two artists. They lost a daughter 20 years before, another trauma that Yusuke carries with him.
After the belated credits, the film pivots to a stage production two years later of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, which Yusuke will direct. The cast for the play and for Hamaguchi’s backstage drama is made up of actors from different parts of Asia, each of whom performs in their own language (translated via supertitles). Also in the cast is Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), who is mute and delivers her lines in the elegantly spare and expressive movements of Korean Sign Language. Always graceful, these gestures can be so sublime that you won’t turn your eyes away to read the subtitles.
Drive My Car is about many things, but at its core is loss. The sphinx-like Yusuke’s strategy is to submerge his feelings, before and after the death of his wife. When he arrives in Hiroshima, Yusuke meets two charmingly dutiful guardians of the theater. He’s booked a hotel an hour away so he can practice his lines (music-minus-one style) with cassette tapes on which Oto recorded the other spoken lines in a scene. Oto is still with him, especially in his car.
He’s told by his Hiroshima hosts that he can’t drive, because an earlier cast member had an accident, and the theater can’t get insurance. He’s peeved but, instead of huffing off, Yusuke agrees to try the driver provided by the theater, a 20-something boyish-looking woman, Misaki (Toko Miura). They share one thing besides the tight space of Yusuke’s Saab — stubbornness. When they finally speak to each other about anything other than playing Yusuke’s tapes, each has stories to tell — in the car, of course.
It would be too easy to call the stories therapy — this isn’t a new motivational American version of Driving Miss Daisy. The narratives are ways that the pair reveal parts of their lives to each other; it is as if they were sampling painful details without first knowing that the exchange might serve as a balm to ease their pain.
Like any road movie, this is a journey, a drive into the next steps in a man’s life. Forced to be in that enclosed Saab space — as in an elevator or a small boat — and forced to relinquish control, Yusuke reaches beyond himself and allows others to reach him.
Uncle Vanya, which centers on the enclosed space of a family, is as crucial to Yusuke’s transformation as fuel is for his Saab. For all his humanism, Chekhov can be a very wry and sour playwright. Yusuke is an imperious director and demands that the actors, congregated for the first time, do a table-reading of the script with no emotion — the zen of Chekhov? Uncle Vanya begins with a worst-of-both-worlds domestic predicament for its characters — years of miscommunication and frustrated passions have only sharpened with age.
Playing the role of Vanya is the charismatic Takatsuki, a young star with two strikes against him. He slept with Oto (and seeks a friendly relationship with Yusuke, who is interested in learning new things about his ex-wife). The performer’s career has also been derailed by scandals, the worst of which occurs when Vanya is in rehearsal. Yusuke takes over the role, his face softened by a stage mustache. Hint: more than his face has been softened. The play (seen mostly in snippets) that gives vent to effusive emotions ends in this staging with a transcendent affirmation of life that’s delivered in Korean Sign Language. The production achieves in microcosm what the film succeeds at doing on a broader level: it shows people pulling each other back from despair and living again.
At first, it feels as if there’s more visual style in conventional car commercials than there is in Drive My Car. Anything but grandly pictorial, the film looks as if it could have been casually shot on the run. Landscapes that promise visual drama are left ordinary. We see plenty of roads, hotel entrances, bland interiors, and the ruins of driver Misaki’s childhood home, which was crushed in a landslide. Critics have praised Hamaguchi’s visual approach by calling it a mosaic, which it is. For another cross-medium comparison, think of Renaissance paintings that contain vignettes that amplify what happens in a central scene, plus a series of additional events painted in sections called the predella at the lower part of the frame. But Hamaguchi reminds us that our lives aren’t simply made up of contiguous fragments, like the parts of a mosaic. Or cohabit the same picture plane. In this film, our lives are seen as woven together with and by others, for better or worse.
The film’s probing close-ups are something else. Hamaguchi’s narratives advance mostly in conversations, often as much in reaction shots as in shots of people speaking. It doesn’t hurt that DP Hidetoshi Shinomiya had a cast of expressive actors in his lens — Hidetoshi Nishijima as the stone-faced Yusuke, Toko Miura as the stolidly wounded Misaki, Masaki Okada as the irascible but disgraced star Takatsuki, and Yoo-rim Park as the serene, nonspeaking Yoon-a — an apparition that you might expect to find in a medieval tapestry.
With these relatively unknown but remarkable performers, Hamaguchi has scored a succes d’estime. And how often do we see names like Murakami and Chekhov together on a movie marquee?
ADDENDUM — In thinking about Hamaguchi’s film of serial coincidences and literary references, I hope I’m not the only one who noticed the recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (“Man Fights Tiny Woman” 5th episode, season 11)) where Larry David, confronted with a small female driver who picks him up at the airport, refuses to let the woman chauffeur carry his bags and ends up wrestling on the ground with her. “That’s not a good look for you,” Seth Rogen informs him. There’s always way to tell a story.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.