Chris’s review published on Letterboxd:
The first masterpiece of the 2020s decade, the first since Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and one of only 5 or 6 of the past eight years.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi masterfully crafts a tale of characters coping with grief, living with regret, and trying to forge a path ahead.
Hamaguchi explores his main character’s grief (Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yûsuke Kafuku perfectly) with an inspired choice of simultaneously rehearsing a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. You’re never quite sure if Chekhov’s lines of dialogue are being rehearsed for the play or used as treatment.
I don’t think I’ve seen before in cinema a more finely tuned exploration of art vis-à-vis the human condition, and how intertwined they are psychologically, emotionally. In general, the screenplay is one of the best of recent years. The characters’ grief coupled with the Chekhov rehearsal combined with the onward symbol of Kafuku’s red car… it’s all brilliant.
Drive My Car also moves amazingly well for a three-hour character study. Every segment is richly and deservedly filled, beginning with a deep prologue that could act as a short film on its own, before the opening credits roll at approx. 35mins. And it’s lovely to watch, too. Similar to Edward Yang’s prestigious work (A Brighter Summer Day; Yi Yi), each shot has so much warmth and character love, while also being superlatively framed. The opening scene, alone, is remarkable.
Nishijima is gifted as Kafuku. His choices are subdued yet powerful. But just as impressive is his personal driver, played by Tôko Miura. Her choices are similar, but depict a harder shell compared to Kafuku’s more fragile state. Reika Kirishima (Kafuku’s wife) and Masaki Okada (an actor in the play) are both highly memorable. But perhaps in the end, Park Yu-rim, who plays a mute actor, delivering her Chekhov dialogue through Korean Sign Language, is the most impactful. Her scenes, whether on stage or off, are strikingly powerful.
There’s an immense more that could be said about Drive My Car (I’ve barely touched on how the characters communicate through different languages, or how it all unfolds like a richly dense novel). But I think when I knew it was my (so far) favorite/best movie of 2021 was when the whole thing came home with a close-up of moving forward despite so much despair. This may not sit well with others, but Hamaguchi connects this idea with the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was left in a messy pool of tears.
The final scene is symbolically interesting relative to the production, as well, since the movie was originally set in Busan, South Korea, but moved filming to Hiroshima, due to pandemic restrictions. The final scene returns to Busan.
I say this is my favorite/best movie “so far,” but in reality, I’m not sure any remaining 2021 release could top it. Maybe The Worst Person in the World… Maybe The Tragedy of MacBeth… but I don’t know: Drive My Car is special. You don’t get too many masterpieces per year anymore.
PS viewing note: I watched at the Music Box's Screening Room (75-seat theater), and it was a perfect, intimate location for this movie.