Drive My Car Review: An Engrossing Tale of Sorrows Unspoken

Drive My Car Review: An Engrossing Tale of Sorrows Unspoken

Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest feature, Drive My Car (2021), is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s eponymous short story of the same name from the 2014 collection Men Without Women. Like Lee Chong Dong’s approach in Burning(2018), Hamaguchi too expands on the story, infuses the plot with his emotions, and permeates it with his vision. To his credit, he intersperses the narrative with celebrated Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, which often serves as the subtext of the film, and if you ‘yield’ yourself to the film, it might become the central point of navigation to the characters’ hearts. But more on that later.

Drive My Car is an effortless three-hour long-journey into the life of a Japanese thespian, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who after two years of his wife’s sudden death, tries to piece together a play that he was supposed to perform at that time. Surprisingly, the credits don’t turn up till forty minutes into the film. That extended prologue serves not only as an informational segment giving us a peek into his married life, but as an emotional stepping stone on which Hamaguchi braces the edifice of his narrative.

Yūsuke is invited to Hiroshima, a city that has become a symbol of tragic endurance, more so after Alain Resnais’ immortalised the city in its beguiling beauty in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959)Yusuke’s idea is to spin a multilingual production of Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, where the actors are asked to transcend the language barrier by relying on each other’s body language and leaning on their own emotional response.

Drive My Car Review: An Engrossing Tale of Sorrows Unspoken

Image Courtesy: Janus Films

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He is assigned with a chauffeur, a young woman, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), to drive his Saba 900, which for him is more than a car a cherished space where he has shared many a moment of tenderness with his late wife. Hamaguchi, like his personal hero, Abbas Kiarostami, is fascinated by car drives- there is something special about a tiny space being shared by two people. Something that can bring two people closer and also initiate an introspective journey.

Both Yūsuke and Misaki are reticent, withdrawn, and restrained in their behaviours and emotions. Rather than tending the wounds, they have tried to repress them, hoping they might heal with time.  Even in the closest moments, there is a sense of palpable detachment, as if they have vowed not to go wandering into the depth of each other’s soul. Ultimately, it is Chekov’s lines that steer the wheel and eventually take them into the depths of shared grief and mutual reconciliation.

However, the influence or the presence of Chekov never invades the narrative. On the contrary, it is an invitation for the audience to engage personally with the film. “Chekhov is terrifying because his lines drag the real out of you,” says Yūsuke to a young actor playing the role of Vanya. 

Drive My Car Review: An Engrossing Tale of Sorrows Unspoken

Image Courtesy: Janus Films

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Inconspicuous as they may be, the film is divided into three parts playing out in three different cities- Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Hokkaido. The cities also serve as a mental space with their own memories and emotions. Hamaguchi’s minimal style is well accompanied by Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s self-effacing camerawork and Eiko Ishibashi’s redolent music.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura are brilliant in their portrayal of two aggrieved people forming an unusual bond. In an interview, Hamaguchi revealed that the laborious text-reading routine shown in the film is actually his process of script-reading. Stripping the text of its emotional appeal and reducing the dialogues to bare bones helps reveal their naked beauty, to which his actors can add their personal experience and flesh out the characters.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi might not be a familiar name among Indian audiences, but that has more to do with the limited releases of his films. Even though he has been making films since early 2000, the world took quite a time to catch up with his oeuvre. It was his five-hour-long epic Happy Hour (2015) that brought him the recognition he deserves. With three films already under his name in 2021 alone- as a director of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which bagged Silver Bear in Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, and Drive My Car, and as a scriptwriter in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy- this is probably going to be Hamaguchi’s year. 

Drive My Car, which has won three awards in Cannes this year including  Best Screenplay, is Japan’s official entry into the 94th Academy Awards. It shows that Hamaguchi is a force to be reckoned with.

Watch the trailer here

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Author’s Biographical Note: Parnab Bhattacharya is a freelance writer, currently working as an intern at Explore Screen.

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