Review: Drive My Car
Drive My Car adapts Haruki Murakami’s novel into a literary character study of lost lives and ambiguous connections. Centred on the story of a Japanese playwright putting on a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya after his wife’s death, it deals with the human heart in a very real and compelling way, at the same time revealing engaging mysteries pertaining to the film’s characters as the story unravels.
Drive My Car (co-written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi) is one of the five films up for best foreign film at the Oscars this year. It could very well win because it is excellent. Based on a story by bestselling author Haruki Murakami, Hamaguchi’s film tells the story of Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a Japanese actor and playwright who likes to put on productions where actors from different countries each speak in the language they are familiar with. As you can imagine, he needs a translator and there are at least three sets of subtitles being projected during any given production. He lives with his wife who writes dramas for TV and though their relationship is troubled, it seems functional. He comes home one day after a flight is cancelled to find his wife in the midst of an affair with a hotshot young actor she works with, Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada).
Kafuku does not confront his wife and since she dies suddenly and unexpectedly, as far as we know, they never address that aspect of their relationship. Takatsuki comes to the funeral and Kafuku acknowledges his presence but does not confront him there either. Two years later, Kafuku is in remote Hiroshima, working as a director on a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Takatsuki auditions for one of the parts. Inexplicably, Kafuku picks him but assigns him the elderly role of Vanya himself, an odd choice for one so young. Takatsuki is uncomfortable with the assignment but is not in a position to bargain as the intervening two years has seen him lose a lot of his standing due to a scandal (an inappropriate relationship with an underage woman) and other unwise behaviour. Kafuku never tells him that he knows of Takatsuki’s culpability and we are left to wonder whether he is punishing Takatsuki or obsessed with him or neither, perhaps something much more complicated and ineffable. As Takatsuki flounders in general with his impulses, it provides for riveting viewing
The title of the film refers to Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a young woman who has been assigned to drive Kafuku to and from the theatre for liability reasons. Kafuku at first is quite nonplussed about this as taking long drives, listening to a recording of Uncle Vanya his wife gave him, is part of his process but Watari impresses herself upon him by her quiet, steady demeanour and excellent driving skills. She is not without her baggage though. During their brief bouts of conversation, Watari tells him that she learned to drive so smoothly because her abusive mother would sleep in the back of their car after Watari picked her up after her mother’s shift, and would hit her if Watari’s driving caused her mother to wake up.
Though the film is just over three hours long, it feels like the perfect length because its pacing and dialogue seems so measured and even; each scene feels like it takes as long as it has to. Though some of the conversations are lengthy (and we get a couple of real doozies between Kafuku and Takatsuki regarding Kafuku’s wife), it never feels as if the plot suffers. Instead, people probe philosophical questions about life and each other that are fascinating. Kafuku is used to picking actors who speak different languages but in this case, he also picks an actor who is mute and communicates in sign language. The scenes with her are even more compelling for this fact. As the film progresses, we learn enough about the characters we encounter, their complexities and secrets, to make the substantial running time worthwhile.
Like what I assume is inherent in the source novel (I haven’t read it), the film has a very literary quality. The odd ambiguities in the characters’ lives as they interact, the pains and hurts they suffer from, and the way in which they reveal them (without actually revealing them) play out engagingly without ever relying on twists or melodrama. All of the characters and behaviours feel at once both naturalistic and mysterious, unfathomable yet familiar, just like the human heart in real life. At the same time, it would be doing a disservice to say that it is the literary source material that carries the film. The film is elegant in the way Japanese films can sometimes be, while at the same time very powerful in an understated way that is palpable. In the end, all of the characters must accept their flaws and ambiguities, ending with the performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and a rendition of lines that speak to the very real and enduring pain the struggle to live brings with it, without losing sight of the tender mercies and knowledge of our own humanity that somehow make living worthwhile. Compelling viewing to say the least.
Drive My Car is out now.