OSCAR: BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM: 2021
“Drive My Car”, 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 grief 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 the director Ryusuke Hamagushi and 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 reaches the conclusion of 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 and 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. 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 accepts a two-month residency with a theatre program in Hiroshima where he will direct a multi-lingual 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 own car. He must have a driver. He is reluctant at first but, eventually, he acquiesces. The driver is a taciturn young lady, Misaki (Toko Miura outstanding), who has had her own tragedies and her own 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, at the workshop, the production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” is underway, and we follow the gestation of the play from a straight reading around a table to the complexities of a multi-lingual production (the role of Sonya (Park Yu-rim) goes one step further since she is played by 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 where there is no 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 act of confession turns into one of the most memorable scenes of the film 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 major 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, because of some later plot developments, Yusuke himself is playing the lead.
Why do Murakami’s short stories make for such interesting movies – there has 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, has elevated Murakami, in a cinematic sense, to a whole other level.
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