4 out of 5 stars

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car / ドライブ・マイ・カー is a film of muffled theatrics. Structured primarily around a play directed by the film’s protagonist, Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the film’s most emotional moments are concealed in a veil of detachment and artificiality. This is evident from the first moment of the film, where Oto (Reika Kirishima), Kafuku’s wife, wakes up to tell a story she’d dreamed up about a girl stalking her high school crush. The couple’s bond of love in their most intimate moments is illustrated through fictional storytelling.

The fiction isn’t meant to conceal the truth, so much as it’s used to access an emotional truth that would otherwise be suppressed. This, too, is evident from the first moments of the film, when Kafuku says he suspects his wife’s story is about her first love, which she denies. A theatre director and actor, Kafuku refuses to act in the Chekhov play he’s directing for fear of being forced, through channelling emotion in his acting, to truly suffer the emotional severity of a trauma he’s recently endured. Evidently, Hamaguchi wishes to illustrate the ecstatic truth accessed solely through art, specifically storytelling and performance.

While the emotions in the play feel authentic and raw, they’re delivered at the director’s behest with as little theatrics and emoting as possible. Rather than intending to suppress the power of the play, this technique seems to be used by both Hamaguchi and Kafuku as a means of more closely accessing the emotional truth of the play’s text. Moreover, the multilinguality of the film that somewhat sterilises the language of the performances through translation, creates an effect of reverence for the words of the play that the character Takatsuki, an actor himself, describes hesitantly as “moving.”

The point of Drive My Car that most heavily hammers home its theme is the film’s climax, where the source of the great tragedy of one of the main character’s lives is revisited. The dialogue in this scene is highly theatrical, disputably to the point of failing to access the obvious emotions of the moment in a meaningful way with which the audience would connect. While the performances aren’t so OTT as to break the cohesion of the film and characters, the directly emotional content of the scene is the most technically raw, authentic moment of the film, and yet the emotional reality of the characters feels far away.

The most important moments and information of the film are all delivered indirectly—through a mirror, or a television broadcast in the background, or a passing stranger’s dialogue. Kufuku communicates with his wife throughout the film primarily through reading his lines for the play he is directing, Uncle Vanya, back and forth with a recording of her voice. This holds at least two layers of inauthenticity, of ontological relationship, of distance—the first being that this is a recording, and the second being that it’s a sterilised reading of lines from a play.

Drive My Car is one of two films that Hamaguchi premiered at New York Film Festival this past year, the other being Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. These follow his film Asako I & II (2018), and Drive My Car similarly plays with the revelation and suppression of the characters’ emotions in romance and betrayal. The ambiguity of the actors’ performances makes the weight of the few actions or words that might illustrate the characters’ feelings all that much more meaningful and, such as in the case of Asako I & II, present an even greater and more shocking capacity to contradict those actions.

Concealment and suppression of the endless complexities of love are clearly a fascination for Hamaguchi, but Drive My Car seems to have a more optimistic outlook than some of his other work. Rather than ending in a dissonant relationship of mistrust as Asako I & II did, Drive My Car ends with the central relationship in a place of mutual understanding and harmony. Further, Hamaguchi seems to suggest that he has been able to successfully exercise his demons of past romances through his artistic work, just as Kufuku does through his play. He seems to come to similar conclusions in the second story of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, where a woman reads an author his erotic writing in an attempt to seduce him and, while she is met with the cold calculation of his intent, he’s met with the raw power of his own words when read in a voice that connects to them honestly.

While the uneven structure of Drive My Car is unexpected, the long prologue serves as an essential foundation for the primary story centered around the play. However, the brief epilogue feels like an unnecessarily sentimental betrayal not only of the obvious structural finale which presented itself moments earlier in the play’s ending, but also of the playful ambiguity of the central relationship. While the epilogue gives very little in terms of true story information, it serves to ground a film that previously enjoyed a sleepy, meditative magic of snowy landscapes, careening night-time drives and spare theatrical sets into a soberingly bright, less-than-poetic reality of KN95 masks and grocery stores. It’s a brutish and incoherent alarm clock masquerading itself as a happy ending, and it interrupts the film’s ambience in a manner that feels more sloppy than thoughtful.

Drive My Car has a potent subtlety that’s undeniable. This film may not be explosive, but it’s dense and constantly moves forward. The driving montages that break up the more active, sedentary scenes, far from slowing the film down, instead serve to establish its rhythm and build its central relationship. And for a film with a three-hour runtime, it’s impressive that it’s only a few minutes too long.

JAPAN | 2021 | 179 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE

Cast & Crew

director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
writers: Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe (based on a short story by Haruki Murakami).
starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima, Tōko Miura, Masaki Okada & Park Yoo-rim.