Movie Review: “Drive My Car” – A Saab Story

By David D’Arcy

The brilliant Drive my car is about a lot of things, but at its core the film is an exploration of loss.

Drive my car directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in Drive my car.

Literary and human, Drive my car, a three-hour film in Japanese (and a few other Asian languages), has garnered critical acclaim since its Cannes Film Festival premiere. It’s already open and the screenings are spreading across the United States. Critics always pile on praise, which is deserved.

Drive my car, adapted (and developed) from a short story by Haruki Murakami, is a film that explores how life echoes art, or not, and how people deal with loss or not. If that sounds wide, it is. If that sounds ambitious, so is it.

Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film begins with two characters of a married couple in their forties, the austere actor and director Yusuke Kakufu (Hidetoshi Nishijima), owner of a red Saab 900, and his wife, screenwriter Oto ( Reika Kirishima). Oto suddenly dies less than forty minutes after the film begins – not a sleight of hand, but a jolt that reverberates throughout the story. In another unlikely touch, Hamaguchi kicks off the opening credits around the same time. It’s a film that moves forward on its own terms.

Oto used to tell Yusuke the stories she wrote while sleeping with him – auditioning them, you might say – which he then repeated to her later. Married couples have a way of ending each other’s sentences. Yet in one of the film’s revealing moments, we learn that Oto’s sex life wasn’t just about these conversations. When a flight is canceled, Yusuke unexpectedly returns home to find her in bed with a man. He leaves without interrupting them. Oto’s infidelities were not the only challenge to this marriage of two artists. They lost a daughter twenty years ago, another trauma Yusuke carries with him.

After the late credits, the film turns to a staging two years later of the film by Anton Chekhov Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, which Yusuke will lead. The cast of Hamaguchi’s behind-the-scenes play and drama is made up of actors from different parts of Asia, each performing in their own language (translated via surtitles). Also part of the cast is Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), who is silent and pronounces his lines in the elegantly clean and expressive movements of Korean Sign Language. Always graceful, these gestures can be so sublime that you won’t look away to read the captions.

Drive my car is about a lot of things, but at the root is loss. The Sphinx Yusuke’s strategy is to overwhelm his feelings, both before and after his wife’s death. When he arrives in Hiroshima, Yusuke meets two charming and dedicated theater keepers. He booked a hotel an hour away so that he could practice his lines (music style minus one) with tapes on which Oto recorded the other spoken lines in one scene. Oto is always with him, especially in his car.

His Hiroshima hosts tell him he can’t drive because a former cast member has been in an accident and the theater can’t buy insurance. He is irritated but, instead of huffing, Yusuke agrees to try the driver provided by the theater, a young woman in her twenties, Misaki (Toko Miura). They share one thing besides Yusuke’s tight Saab space – stubbornness. When they finally talk to each other about something entirely different from playing Yusuke’s tapes, each has stories to tell – in the car, of course.

It would be too easy to call the therapy stories – this is not a motivational new American version of Driving Miss Daisy. Stories are means by which the couple reveals parts of each other’s life; it’s as if they were tasting painful details without first knowing that the exchange could act as a balm to ease their pain.

Like any road movie, it’s a journey, a journey to the next stages in a man’s life. Forced to be in that enclosed Saab space – like in an elevator or a small boat – and forced to relinquish control, Yusuke goes beyond himself and allows others to reach him.

Uncle Vanya, which focuses on a family’s confined space, is as crucial to Yusuke’s transformation as fuel is to his Saab. Despite all his humanism, Chekhov can be a very ironic and sour playwright. Yusuke is a compelling director and demands that the actors, gathered for the first time, make a table-reading of the scenario without emotion – the zen of Chekhov? Uncle Vanya begins with a domestic situation that’s the worst of both worlds for her characters – years of miscommunication and frustrated passions have only sharpened with age.

The charismatic Takatsuki, a young star with two hits against him, plays the role of Vanya. He slept with Oto (and is looking for a friendly relationship with Yusuke, who wants to learn new things about his ex-wife). The performer’s career has been turned upside down by scandals, the worst of which comes when Vania is in rehearsal. Yusuke takes over the role, his face softened by a stage mustache. Hint: more than her face has been softened. The play (seen mainly in excerpts) which gives free rein to effusive emotions ends in this staging with a transcendent affirmation of life which is delivered in Korean sign language. The production achieves in microcosm what the film manages to do on a larger level: it shows people stepping back from despair and coming back to life.

At first, it feels like there is more visual style in conventional automotive ads than in Drive my car. Anything but pictorial grandiose, the film gives the impression that it could have been shot casually while running. Landscapes that promise visual drama remain ordinary. We see lots of roads, hotel entrances, bland interiors and the ruins of driver Misaki’s childhood home, which was crushed in a landslide. Critics praised Hamaguchi’s visual approach by calling it a mosaic, which it is. For another medium-to-medium comparison, consider Renaissance paintings that contain vignettes that amplify what is happening in a central scene, as well as a series of additional events painted in sections called the predella in the lower part of the frame. But Hamaguchi reminds us that our lives are not just made up of contiguous fragments, like parts of a mosaic. Or live together on the same photo plane. In this film, our lives are seen as woven with and by others, for better or for worse.

The film’s close-ups are something else. Hamaguchi’s accounts advance mainly in conversations, often as much in plans of reaction as in plans of people speaking. It doesn’t hurt that DP Hidetoshi Shinomiya had a cast of expressive actors in his goal – Hidetoshi Nishijima as the stone-faced Yusuke, Toko Miura as the badly injured Misaki, Masaki Okada as the irascible star. but dishonored Takatsuki and Yoo-rim Park like the serene Yoon-a who does not speak – an appearance you might expect to find in a medieval tapestry.

With these relatively unknown but remarkable performers, Hamaguchi marked a esteem success. And how often do we see names like Murakami and Chekhov together on a movie tent?

ADDENDUM – Thinking of Hamaguchi’s movie about serial coincidences and literary references, I hope I’m not the only one who noticed the recent episode of Calm your enthusiasm (“The man fights the little woman” 5e episode, season 11)) where Larry David, confronted with a small driver who comes to pick him up at the airport, refuses to let the woman driver carry her luggage and ends up struggling on the ground with her. “It’s not a good look for you,” Seth Rogin informs him. There is always another way to tell a story.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes on art for numerous publications, including the Art journal. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), on the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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