An understated slow-burn thriller, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a three-hour feat I can’t recommend enough. The winner of this year’s Best Screenplay award at Cannes, it’s easy to see why it’s garnered the accolades. A masterful narrative, it moves along at just the right pace without feeling that it dragged at all, despite its runtime. Drive My Car is a closely-observed portrait of a Japanese actor’s home life being turned upside down, and his subsequent attempt to stage a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, with eerie parallels to his own life.
I have to say that few things have elevated my week the way this film has. I want anyone reading this now to just leave any expectations and ideas they might have about this film at the door, and get ready for something wholly unexpected. Just when you think you might be fatigued with an oversaturation of films, a feature like this comes along and takes your breath away. This is why we watch films, and write about them, share them and talk about them. It may break your heart. It may also make you realise how wonderful life can be at the same time.
Drive My Car
Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Release date: October 8, 2021 (LFF)
Actor-director Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijimais) happily married to screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima) and the two enjoy a sensuous, mutually enriching creative partnership that feeds into their professional lives and fuels their theatre and screen projects. Every night, they tell each other stories that are remembered and translated into work the next day, and they are, to all intents and purposes, perfectly happy.
The twists in this film are so understated that you could blink and miss them, but almost overnight Yûsuke’s world comes crashing down when Oto vanishes from his life. What’s worse: she was on the verge of revealing something that very evening, but her secret follows her. And that’s just the first 45 minutes.
This is all the first act of the story. After considerable time, we’re introduced to opening credits, as if everything up until now has been a prologue. In many ways it takes the form of a novel: while the film has been adapted from Murakami Haruki’s short story ‘Men Without Women’, it could easily have been a source of a thousand pages or longer, so rich and psychologically complex are its characters. You gradually realise that nobody is wholly bad, neither is anyone wholly virtuous. People are people: that’s about all that can be said.
The second ‘act’ follows Yûsuke two years later, as he moves to Hiroshima for a residency with a theatre group, in order to produce and stage a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. He has inclinations of some of his wife’s past infidelities, but when a certain mysterious ex-lover of hers – Kôji Takatsuki (played by Masaki Okada) – walks into the picture, things become much more complex. One by one, the fragile constructions Yûsuke uses to keep his life together are snatched away, leaving him on a precipice.
His main solace is an old, red Saab 900 he’s driven for 15 years, but when he contracts early-stage glaucoma, which could result in partial sight-loss later in life, he’s strongly encouraged to hire a driver. Physically and literally, he’s shifted to the passenger seat of his own life through no fault of his own. Trying to preserve his routine as much as possible, he plays a cassette tape with dialogue from Uncle Vanya, recorded by his wife, to practice lines during his journeys. The reticent young woman in the role of chauffeur is Misaki Watari (played by the brilliant Tôko Miura) — as she spends more and more time with the haunted Yusuke, the two get to know each other through snippets of overheard conversations.
What made the film absolutely beautiful for me was the use of four different languages to convey the story. A visionary creative, Yûsuke stages his Uncle Vanya in a multi-lingual format, casting both Japanese and international actors in the roles, with subtitles on stage for the diegetic audiences to read them, and superimposed subtitles burned into the film so that viewers can read them. We have Japanese, English, Korean, and even Korean sign language. It performs two functions: within the narrative, it’s a way of showing that Yûsuke is an open-minded, generous and creative soul. Outside the narrative, it shows that film is a medium that can be fully inclusive and all the richer for it.
The casting of the talented Yoo-rim Park to play the part of a mute Korean stage actor, Lee Yoon-a, shows just how sorely this diversity of talent is missing from cinema (mainstream, independent or international) and honestly, her sequences could have made me weep. The dialogue was acted with such expressive gestures that it almost resembled a dance more than a speech, and I was truly arrested. This element of the film, and the filmmaker’s sensitivity handling the subject, was deeply impactful and will sit with me for a long time.
Without revealing too much, it becomes apparent that young driver Misaki’s life has had just as seismic consequences as Yûsuke’s, and as the drama reaches its denouement, the two of them have to cling to what bonds them. The shared suffering almost puts everything else into perspective and reveals that the people around us are the most important things we have.
Comparisons may be made to An Elephant Sitting Still, a four-hour epic from the late Hu Bo, but in contrast to that film, Drive My Car is a beautiful and life-affirming tale of survivors and stolid humanity. Ending the way it does, you can’t help but feel as though you’ve been on the journey of your life with these characters. It’s remarkable, it must be seen for yourself, and it deserves every word of praise coming its way.