OSCAR: BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM: 2021
“Drive My Car” is Ryusuke Hamagushi’s hypnotic three-hour movie.
“Drive My Car” is, at once, a very literary and a very cinematic movie. It is a movie about grief. How our lives can be destroyed by grief, but also how we can accept suffering and live with it. It’s based on the short story of the same name by Haruki Murakami from his 2014 short story collection “Men Without Women,” though the director acknowledged that he also took inspiration from two other stories of the eight in the collection: “Scheherazade” and “Kino.”. The adaptation is by director Ryusuke Hamagushi, together with Takamasa Oe.
The writer and the director.
In the opening scenes, we are introduced to a couple living in Tokyo, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Otto (Reika Kirishima). Both are in the entertainment industry. Both are successful. He is an actor and director of plays, and she writes for television. They are beautiful, yet a little strange, and with an air of sadness about them having lost a child to pneumonia in the past. At night, when they have sex, Otto recites the plot of whatever she is working on, and in the morning, Yusuke offers his suggestions.
The Never-ending story.
Otto’s latest story involves a female high school student who has a crush on an older boy in her school. Each day, after school, she visits his house on her own, lays on his bed, and always leaves something of hers behind for him to find. Then, one afternoon, she hears the front door open. Someone has arrived home early… Each time Otto concludes the story, she climaxes.
Mirroring the story, one day, Yusuke comes home early to find Otto in bed with another man. He leaves quietly and does not tell her he has seen them together. He withdraws to the sanctuary of his car, his beloved red Saab (the movie’s real star), where he drives around Tokyo listening to tapes of his latest play, which Otto has recorded for him.
One day, Otto says ominously that she would like to talk with him after he gets home. When he gets home, he finds her dead. There are no suspicious circumstances. She has died of a brain hemorrhage. After her death, he is mourning not just for her but for her unfaithfulness toward him and their lost child.
Two years later, Yusuke accepted a two-month residency with a theatre program in Hiroshima where he would direct a multilingual adaptation of Chekov’s famous play “Uncle Vanya.” As he drives into Hiroshima, the opening credits roll forty minutes into the film, and we realize that what we have seen so far is just a prelude to the main story.
At the workshop, he is told that, for insurance reasons, he cannot drive his car. He must have a driver. He is reluctant at first, but eventually, he approves. The driver is a taciturn young lady, Misaki (Toko Miura outstanding), who has had her tragedies and her grief to deal with. Gradually, with both listening to Otto’s tapes as they drive around Hiroshima (unbelievably beautiful), Yusuke and Misaki start to talk and get to know one another.
Meanwhile, Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” is being produced at the workshop. We follow the play’s gestation from a straight reading around a table to the complexities of a multilingual production (the role of Sonya (Park Yu-rim) goes one step further since she is played by a mute Korean actress using Korean sign language).
As hypnotic as “Vertigo”.
For a movie that is all about words, there are surprisingly few of them. There are long stretches without dialogue, just Yusuke, Misaki, and Saab. In these sequences, the film is as hypnotic as “Vertigo.”
Confession in a single take.
In the workshop, one of the students is a disgraced TV actor, Koji (Masaki Okada), who knew Otto. Yusuke and Koji have a scene in the car where Koji reveals that he, too, had an affair with Otto and that during their sexual encounters, she had presented him with an advanced version of her “story.” It turns out that the person entering the house was not a family member but a burglar. Okada tells all of “The Story” and more in one extended closeup with no cutaways to the listener. What might have been a simple confession turns into one of the film’s most memorable scenes, and it’s riveting!
Misaki unburdens herself.
The car also serves as Misaki’s confessional as she gradually unburdens herself of her tragic past, and Yusuke decides that the two of them will drive, in a stunningly edited sequence, to Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, where she can confront her demons. There, the film’s two central characters, Yusuke and Misaki, and the audience reach a kind of closure.
Meanwhile, bringing all the plot strands together is the opening night of “Uncle Vanya,” in which Yusuke plays the lead because of some later plot developments.
Why do Murakami’s short stories make for such exciting movies – there have been a bunch, both Japanese and American. His ability to mix the mundane and the mysterious? But with “Drive My Car, “Hamaguchi and his superb leading man, Hidetoshi, have elevated Murakami, in a cinematic sense, to a whole other level.