Drive My Car, directed with a delicate, luminous touch by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, deservedly won the Oscar this week for Best Film International Feature, the first Japanese film ever to do so.
Goby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Drive My Car is a mesmerising film that stays with you long afterwards. Its rhythm and pace enfolds the viewer: by the end you see how necessary and fitting that three-hour journey was and how much it encompassed.
There are many compelling layers to the story. Central character, award-winning theatre director Yusuke Kafuku’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) private life is interwoven with his work and one of the film’s layers concerns the interrelationship between life and art.
Two years after the sudden death of his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), with whom there was intimacy despite her infidelities, still-grief-stricken Kafuku is invited to direct a multi-lingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival in Hiroshima. His castings and rehearsals seeking to find the reality of the play involve actors from Asian countries, England and Germany each performing in their own language. A deaf actress Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoo-rime) even performs in Korean sign language, triggering a poignant revelation. Kafuku deliberately miscasts his late wife’s young former lover Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), as the older Uncle Vanya for reasons that are ambiguous: but from him he learns something about the erotic-murder stories his wife told.
The festival organisers insist that Kafuku is not allowed to drive and provide him with a young female chauffeur, morose, brusque Misaki (Toko Miura), to drive him in his own car. This red Saab is the only splash of colour against the grey Tokyo streets and wide snow-covered northern landscapes. While driving, Kafuko likes to listen to recordings of his late wife running through lines for the play he is directing, so at first he resents having another person imposed on his solitude. But gradually over the course of their journeys back and forth together, the odd couple achieve a kind of companionship that prompts pent-up devastating truths from both of them amid the snows of Hokkaido. Who is the central character now?
This beautifully acted, humane film satisfyingly examines, among many other things, how to find pragmatic acceptance of profound grief, loss and melancholy. Its stillness creates an elegiac meditation on the impact of unspoken secrets, different kinds of verbal, written and sexual communication, translation, intimacy, and emotional, physical and cultural boundaries and borders. A great film.
Drive My Car is adapted from, and expands on, a short story by Haruki Murakami, from his 2014 collection Men Without Women. (Korean Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) was inspired by another.)
Drive My Car premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won three awards including Best Screenplay (the first Japanese film to do so), screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 19 November 2021 in the UK. Drive My Car won Best International Feature Film in the 2022 Oscars, the first Japanese film ever to do so. It was released in cinemas in the UK on 19 November 2021 and on Mubi on 1 April 2022.