TheTigerCritic’s review published on Letterboxd:
As per my routine when it comes to watching films nowadays, I love going in blind but I love to research. I know who Ryusuke Hamaguchi is, thanks to hours spent online and hours spent watching his drawn-out but moving film Happy Hour. His latest release is Drive My Car and thanks to my policy, I could only speculate what could happen. The first thoughts were the opening track on Rubber Soul by The Beatles. I was anticipating for the scene when the song appears, but that never came. Another clue was that it’s an adaptation of a Harumi Murakami short story, so the driving is going to have big ramifications for the main characters of our tale.
Drive My Car is already revealing the importance of driving in this film, but you’re thinking, aren’t there so many films that have driving as part of their plots. If so, why should I bother with a three-hour film that does indeed have the overused device of driving? However, Drive My Car is a fantastic film that builds up harmoniously like a student driving to university for the first time. Eagerness mixed with hope and melancholy.
I will say you could argue not much occurs in Drive My Car. As the prologue mostly contains theatre productions, storytelling and sex scenes and the rest of the film drops the sex part. Except, the narrative idea of a theatre production is used to explore the past and how it affects people in the present.
This explorations centres around theatre director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and has a story that echoes the plot of Uncle Vanya. In the prologue, Kafuku is happily married to screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima), who can only come up with stories during their sexual encounters. Kafuku has a niche of making theatrical productions of classical plays including Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya with multilingual casts.
This stable set-up is shattered by Kafuku walking in on his wife sleeping with a young actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). After this and a memorial for their daughter, Oto ambiguously says she wants to have a chat with Yusuke but before they can, she dies after he gets home too late.
Two years later, Kafuku accepts a theatre residency in Hiroshima to put on a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya. Due to their company policy, he is not allowed to drive and his beloved car is driven by withdrawn driver Misaki Watari (Toko Misura). While casting goes as planned, Takatsuki appears unexpectedly for the audition and Kafuku decides to take a risk by casting him as Vanya.
All of this is the main body of the minimalist narrative of Drive My Car, as more details are revealed as the story continues. Making the film about how one deals with the past and that in a car, you can drive forward and onward.
Along with this poignant subject matter, Hamaguchi in collaboration with his cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya provides breath-taking shots that highlight the beautiful landscape surrounding Hiroshima that is paired with a well-written script. Drive My Car is accessible because the script is so tightly written and I found it difficult to lose interest, and you got to know these characters almost intimately.
These characters are great to follow because of the naturalistic performances provided by their actors. It’s quite a skill to act so well that you can pretend to be a bad actor.
What’s massively unique about Drive My Car is the number of languages that appear in the film. Of course, you have Japanese, but there’s English, Korean, Mandarin, Filipino and even Dutch at the beginning of the film. At first, I found this device confusing and wasn’t sure why this method was used. Even one of the older actors in the production joked that he lulls off while the foreign actors say their lines. However, there’s a great character that helped me realise its place in the film.
The part of Sonya goes to mute Korean actress Lee Yoo-na (Park Yoo-rim), and Korean Sign Language is her first language. What’s curious is that despite being only understood by her husband theatre programmer Gong Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon), she is able to break through with other castmates notably Yelena played by Taiwanese actress Janice Chan (Sonia Yuan). Her signs revealed how these lines can transcend words and language, with this being a Russian play that manages to be universal and reveal much about the human condition. A part emulated in Lee’s performance.
I must mention as well, that the sweetest characters who also happen to be the most well-adjusted were Lee and Gong. Lee was charming without words while Gong was splendid with speech and they had a dog that Misaki couldn’t resist petting.
The multilingual part of Drive My Car is most prominent in the rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. While Chekhov’s plays and stories have meanings that are recognisable and the same can be said for Drive My Car. However, I believe it helps if you’re aware of what Uncle Vanya is about, as it helps understand the masterful narrative construction of the film.
Uncle Vanya is about Vanya, a man who has spent years taking care of a country estate for his late sister’s husband but, the husband wants to sell the estate and we see the effect of this. A major theme of Uncle Vanya is regret and Drive My Car is about regret.
The way that this theme is developed is through Yusuke and Misaki. As the film progresses, the relationship develops from client to superior to something more akin to a father and daughter. We learn more about them as they become comfortable with revealing their pasts to each other and in turn, creating a multifaceted but riveting story.
I love how Drive My Car deals with the idea of regret, it’s fair to give credit to Chekhov and Murakami, but on-screen, regret is dealt with the simple notion of moving forward. Something that mirrors the driving done in this film. It makes Drive My Car powerful, one that needs a dedicated viewer who can provide answers to the questions.
Despite being young, I have accepted that I don’t relate to young people. I am an old soul who is waiting to get older and then start regretting wasting my youth. Regrets often appear in my mind, but the weird idea is that to counteract those feelings, we have to keep living and find closure with how we live afterwards.
The fact that Drive My Car accesses this great detail of human existence makes it one of the best films in recent memory.