Review: “Drive My Car” takes you to a place of deep and poetic beauty

As the title of “Drive My Car,” Japan’s official submission to this year’s Oscars suggests, much of the three-hour film takes place inside an automobile in which a man is being driven. But it’s not a claustrophobic, uniquely decorated psychological thriller like the masterfully car-related “Locke”. On the contrary, it feels as big as the whole world.

A small part of that is because of that man in the backseat, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), is an actor and stage director known for his experimental productions featuring an international and multilingual cast, all of whom recite their dialogue in their own language, with translations of surtitles projected above the stage.

At the heart of the story, Yusuke participates in a residency at a theater festival in Hiroshima, where he directs Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” with such a multilingual cast, one of which (Park Yurim) communicates in the language of the Korean signs. Her dialogue, on and off stage, is a kind of beautiful hand dance performed by her husband Yoon-su (Jin Daeyeon), the play’s Korean playwright, who notes that his wife is not deaf.

In its understated way, “Drive My Car” is about listening, or, in a broader sense, paying attention, and it invites you to do the same. Yusuke spends his time in the car listening to a tape of “Vanya” that his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) once made for him as he memorized her lines for the title role in this play. Now, as the director of the show, transported from the hotel to the theater by the silent young lady named Misaki (Toko Miura) who was hired to drive Yusuke’s beloved red Saab, Yusuke listens to how the play, as he says so. this “questions” him.

But “Drive My Car,” which director and co-writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi has loosely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, is not just about listening, but about healing and the transformative, terrifying and awe-inspiring power of art. . Yusuke and Misaki are both broken. We learn, from the first act of the film, that Oto died and that she had betrayed her husband before that.

This section of the film is presented as a sort of long, curtain-raising prologue to the main action, and the opening credits don’t even appear until almost 45 minutes after the story begins. What we know from Oto, a TV writer, is that she and Yusuke were sort of creative collaborators: Oto, after having sex, would start reciting a story out loud, as in a erotic trance, but forgot its details the next day. , until Yusuke reminds him and even expands them. Ending each other’s stories is another important and powerful theme here.

We won’t learn of Misaki’s injuries – including the scar visible on her cheek – until much later, when the driver and passenger find out what they share. Meanwhile, rehearsals for “Vanya,” a play about a misanthrope learning to persevere through suffering, continue, with Yusuke engaging a TV star named Koshi (Masaki Okada) in a title role he is in. In some respects unfit: Koshi is too young, and he has a history with Yusuke’s wife – and an impulsive tempter – that will trouble the waters, personally and professionally.

There’s so much going on here, but the director handles the constellation of themes and emotion of the film with impeccable confidence and an at times mind-boggling sense of poetics. When Yoon-su explains to Yusuke why the playwright and his wife moved to Japan from South Korea – where she was more at ease, linguistically, and had a support network of people who understood her signature – he says: “I could listen to him like a hundred people.

In the lead roles, Nishijima and Miura lead a strong supporting cast, testifying to a bond that transcends their characters’ vast age difference: Yusuke is in her 50s and has lost a daughter to the sequels. an illness many years ago – one that would have been 23, Misaki’s age, had she survived.

It seems trite to call their weird bond just love because, in the “Drive My Car” universe, it looks like something much bigger and deeper. Call it confidence. Call it letting go. Call it forgiveness, of oneself, as well as of others. Call it a connection forged by the power of storytelling, which you, as the audience of the film, will experience as well.


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