Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi immerses his audience in a slow-paced journey through loss and endurance in his 2021 film Drive My Car. The film came out on Nov. 24 and has received a new wave of buzz from viewers. It received four Academy Award nominations—best director, best adapted screenplay, best picture, and best international feature film.
Based on author Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same title, the adaptation follows actor and stage director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who is working on an Anton Checkhov play, Uncle Vanya, in Hiroshima. The theater company that hires him prohibits Yūsuke from driving his own car, which is a vehicle that he treasures.
Yūsuke must hand the steering wheel to a young female chauffeur, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura). At first, Yūsuke distrusts Misaki, and he is a rigid and cold passenger to the withdrawn driver. But the vehicle becomes a space of ease and silent comfort in which both characters coexist while dealing with their painful pasts.
Despite the constant panoramic scenes of Yūsuke’s red car in motion, the movie often feels like it is not getting anywhere at all. Although the impeccable cinematography serves as an engaging tool, viewers need more than the average amount of patience to watch Drive My Car.
The film presents Yūsuke and Misaki as characters who are both inundated with grief, but it fails to explore the complexities of their emotions. Their matching unhappiness sometimes creates the illusion of a connection, when in reality, they are using each other’s pain as comfort that they are not the only person experiencing a time of hardship. Yūsuke and Misaki’s only common denominator is their misery.
The self-absorption of these characters makes the relationship tiresome to watch. It seems as if both Yūsuke and Misaki were purposefully written to be statically depressed characters in an attempt to make the movie appear profound.
The film also relies on cliches to portray Misaki’s character. In Hamaguchi’s portrayal of Misaki as an independent and strong character, he relies on her wardrobe of stereotypically male clothing, including baggy jackets and a baseball cap, to set her apart from other female characters. Through Misaki’s character, Drive My Car fails to explore what it would look like for a character to be both independent and feminine.
On the other hand, the integration of theater adds a compelling element to the film. The plot follows the production of Uncle Vanya. The most intimate scenes between characters happen during rehearsals, as the cast truly dives into their assumed roles. Some characters even have difficulty getting out of their roles, creating an interesting blurry effect of fiction versus reality.
Characters repeat lines from the play, saying “What can we do? We must live out our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya.” The immersive experience of the characters also provokes viewers to listen and absorb this message.
A poignant monologue from the character Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoo-rim) creates a scene that rescues the movie from being unemotional. Lee, who is mute and communicates through sign language, performs as Sonya in the play. Yoo-rim’s use of body language is tender in a movie where characters are mostly unaffectionate. Her words address all of the undeveloped or hidden emotions throughout the movie superbly.
Drive My Car is certainly for viewers who enjoy long rides with no definite destination. The characters that surround Yūsuke and Misaki are far more intriguing and complex, while the protagonist and his driver are too cliche to take seriously. All of these elements, including the movie’s astounding visuals, save the film from the flaws of its main characters and might make Drive My Car worth the three-hour-long experience.
Featured Image Courtesy of Bitters End