Sunday, May 1, 2022

Drive My Car (Oraibu mai kâ)




Director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi

Hamaguchi winning Best Screenplay at Cannes

Hamaguchi on the set with Tōko Miura


Hiroshima August 1945

2 month's later














DRIVE MY CAR (Oraibu mai kâ)                A                                                                         Japan  (179 mi)  2021  d: Hamaguchi Ryūsuke

If you really want to look at someone, then your only option is to look at yourself squarely and deeply.                                                                                                                                    

 —Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) from Drive My Car, opening chapter of short story collection Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami, 2014

Best known for the extraordinary 6-hour 2017 Top Ten List #1 Happy Hour (Happî Awâ), a unique exploration into the lives of four disenchanted middle-aged women as they re-evaluate their lives, followed by Asako I & II (Netemo sametemo) (2018), a whimsical double romance, while Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has released two films simultaneously this year, 2021 #10 Film of the Year Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Gûzen to sôzô), a set of three contemporary love stories, and this exquisitely staged, quietly transformative journey that is a brilliant adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 2014 short story collection Men Without Women, including the entitled story, drawing inspiration from two others as well, Scheherazade and Kino.  Murakami is much more prominent in Asia than the West, especially in Japan, where no one else compares to him, known as the “voice of a generation,” where some may recall Lee Chang-dong’s recent film adaptation 2018 Top Ten List #8 Burning (Beoning), often emphasizing the minute details of ordinary life, forcing you to read between the lines to appreciate his artistry.  Co-written by Takamasa Oe, who also assistant directed, this is simply superb storytelling at its finest, extremely conscientious, highly original, dramatically complex, and overwhelmingly powerful, where the fictional work is far less powerful than the film, developing new characters and new circumstances, with Hamaguchi also incorporating theatrical dialogue from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, crafting a literary mosaic that won the Best Screenplay award when it premiered at Cannes, while also nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Foreign Feature.  While it has won a slew of awards and plenty of critical praise, listed at or near the top of many best of the year lists, including #1 by Manohla Dargis at The New York Times, Best Movies of 2021 - The New York Times, the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, Awards - New York Film Critics Circle - NYFCC, and the LA Critics Association, Awards for 2021 - LAFCA, listed at #2 at Film Comment announces 2021 best-of-year lists, indieWIRE’s Best Films of 2021, and The Ten Best Films of 2021 | Features | Roger Ebert, #3 at The 50 best films of 2021 | Sight and Sound - BFI and Cinema Scope: Top Ten Films of 2021 - Year-End Lists, what’s truly remarkable is how most people will probably never see a staged Chekhov performance in their lifetime, yet this director is mainstreaming Chekhov’s controversial and challenging themes to a movie audience, which is a provocative undertaking.  One should say at the outset that not everyone will get this film, with many finding the hype underserved, believing it’s largely an excessively overlong film about nothing.  Also for some people, poetry does nothing for them.  That’s unfortunate, as those with a willingness to look underneath the surface will find a treasuretrove of hidden poetry re-iterating themes Hamaguchi has been exploring in all his films.  At three-hours in length, this is a largely introspective film with an understated, elegiac tone, with themes of forgiveness and loss that require a patient audience willing to undertake a journey into the unknown, as the destination is never clear, becoming an existential exploration of death, grief, heartbreak, and trauma, yet explored in a manner that may remind some of Jacques Rivette, another literary director, as both use theatrical performances to unearth the heart of the story, using the overly detached rhythm and syntax of Chekhov dialogue and rehearsals to ask perplexing questions of the characters, forced to face themselves in a mirror, where honesty is a required prerequisite at each stage along the way.  Much like Kafka uses an anonymous everyman character known only as “K,” where all the action is filtered through his eyes, Hamaguchi uses Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and theater director who is married to an actress-turned-TV screenwriter Oto (which means sound), Reika Kirishima, who previously appeared in Norwegian Wood (2010), an extremely introspective adaptation of a 1987 Haruki Murakami novel.  Oto has an unusual writing style, activated only by having sex, as she narrates a story to her husband with meticulous detail that she later forgets, yet the climax of the story often corresponds to her own sexual climax, requiring him to recall the exact details afterwards.  Both harbor secrets, as Oto has a string of affairs during their 20-year marriage that she never mentions, while Kafuku uncovers his wife’s infidelity, but never confronts her about it.  After watching her husband in a performance of Waiting for Godot, featuring the absurdist contradiction, “You must go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on,” Oto introduces him to a young actor Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a frequent collaborator on the television drama she was working on.  Arriving home early one afternoon after his flight is cancelled, Kafuku sees his wife having sex with Takatsuki, turning around and leaving before being detected, but never brings it up with her afterwards.  Yet one day, before leaving for work, Oto indicates she has something to say when he returns home later in the evening, but when he arrives, she is lying on the floor, dead from a brain hemorrhage.  Following her funeral, overwhelmed by grief, he breaks down in the middle of his performance in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and is unable to continue, as the lines from Chekhov’s play parallel his own to an uncomfortable degree.  At this point, around the 40-minute mark, the title appears onscreen and the credits roll.  “The pandemic does play a big factor in all of this,” Hamaguchi says.  “This idea of losing someone that you love and yet needing to carry on.”

Fast forward to Hiroshima two years later, Kafuku accepts an artist’s residency to produce a multilingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya, housed at a remote location directly on the sea an hour away, distinctly chosen so he may listen to his wife’s reading of the play, leaving silences where he may insert his own role, on a cassette tape along the route as he drives his bright red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo, Drive My Car : The Saab 900 Turbo as sanctuary - Hagerty.  But the theater company won’t allow him to drive, a result of an unfortunate accident that occurred years earlier, so they hire a young female chauffeur to transport him, the extremely reserved Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura, whose understated performance is a wonder), who is the picture of passivity, yet turns out to be unusually competent, continuing his habit of fixating on his wife reading the lines of the play as she drives, which serves as a way of still connecting to his wife, revealing just how difficult it is to let go.  Despite dying early, the character of Oto is central to the narrative, as her voice and ghostly presence are essential to the storyline.  This back and forth mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping, recalling Olivier Assayas’s 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), with Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practicing the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), yet she is actually describing her own predicament.  Consumed by loneliness and alienation, so much of the film is about the inability to communicate, where the central conflict that Kafuku feels guilty about is that he failed to talk about his wife’s infidelity before she passed away, never getting a chance to process the built-up anger he experienced, which he stifled in favor of trying to maintain the status quo of their relationship.  Most likely that was the subject she wanted to discuss on the day that she died, but Kafuku was reticent to return home, so he drove around aimlessly, afraid their dynamic might be unalterably changed forever, still blaming himself for her death, thinking she may have been saved if he came home earlier, remaining tortured by his love.  The auditions are fascinating, as they offer a multilingual array of voices, from Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, and Taiwanese Mandarin, where some of the best scenes are built around the actors struggling to figure out how to convey their character, with a screen over the stage translating the dialogue into various languages.  An early audition between the Japanese-speaking Takatsuki (whose career has been derailed by a sex scandal) and his Taiwanese co-star Janice Chang (Sonia Yuan) shows intensity that blurs the lines between performance and reality, in spite of the fact that neither can remotely understand what the other is saying, yet they have to learn trust, working off the rhythm of the dialogue in order for the play to succeed.  Easily the one that stands out is Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim), offering an emotionally impactive scene while performing in sign language, which only accentuates the dramatic possibilities of the moment, unlocking suprising depth that wasn’t there before.  This is the first scene where Vanya in another language truly enhances the underlying meaning, as it’s strikingly intense, leaving viewers a bit in awe of the moment.  A former dancer who is deaf but can hear, so she can understand words perfectly, but only in Korean, translated by Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon), one of the theater organizers who is fluent in multiple languages, including sign language, which is rather remarkable, something that takes Kafuku by surprise.  All those that auditioned got parts, not necessarily the ones they auditioned for, while Takatsuki is given the part of Vanya, clearly a part he’s unsuited for, but cast nonetheless, as all thought the part was reserved for the director himself, so no one auditioned for it.  Plenty of parallels exist between Chekov’s play and the actors themselves, as once they know the text so thoroughly they understand the innate rhythm of the language, exactly what Kafuku listens for on the tape, so their physical responses will come from within, happening naturally, hoping to remove all artifice.  These rehearsals become a focal point to show how acting can be used to find emotional truths within other people, where this same facet is true of Kafuku as he attempts to extricate his current life from the grips of his past connection to his wife, which still has a hold on him.  At one point they decide to move their rehearsals outside in a park-like setting, choosing a spot where Watari was reading a book, allowing her to watch for a change, getting a firsthand look at what Kafuku does for a living.  It offers an incredible moment, as Sonia’s closing monologue (Uncle Vanya: Sonya's Monologue) is delivered in silence through Korean sign language, delivered to Janice as a stand-in for Vanya, speaking Mandarin Chinese, yet it reaches a kind of inner calm, a profound moment of reverence, as she lovingly drapes her arms over Vanya’s shoulders while standing behind her, providing what amounts to a spiritual restoration.  Using a minimal score by Eiko Ishibashi, often intruding during the lengthy drive sequences, it seems that Hamaguchi has a different cinematographer for each picture, yet his locations and camerawork by Hidetoshi Shinomiya are remarkably astute, where it was no accident that the setting is in Hiroshima.  Breaking early one day, Kafuku asks if Watari will simply drive around town, perhaps hoping to open up their relationship, with Watari mentioning her experiences with an abusive mother, but stops short of revealing more, surprisingly taking him to an immense incineration plant, with a short walkway to the nearby sea.  It’s a meditative moment that adds onto the existing theme of trauma, as it’s certainly questionable whether Japan has ever really recovered from the massive destruction and radiation from a nuclear bomb, where photos and news report coverage were immediately withheld from the Japanese public in the immediate aftermath, as US occupation authorities maintained a monopoly on scientific and medical information about the effects of the atomic bomb, the only country to have ever experienced that, with scars of grotesque physical disfigurement and colossal social trauma, where an entire field of burn medicine had to immediately adapt to the extraordinary circumstances, remaining highly sensitive to potential nuclear disasters, especially following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that is still leaking radiation a decade later.  Perhaps lesser known to viewers, Hamaguchi made a trilogy of earlier documentaries with Kō Sakai on individual lives who were affected by the Fukushima disaster, THE SOUND OF WAVES (2012), VOICES FROM THE WAVES: SHINCHIMACHI (2013), and VOICES FROM THE WAVES: KESENNUMA (2013). 

There are underlying tensions with the director and his leading actor, perhaps hoping to extract revenge, as they are connected by shared intimate experiences with Oto, fertile grounds for exploration.  This culminates with one of the better sequences in the film, taking place in the back seat of the car.  After a few unproductive discussions, Kafuku mentions the obvious, that his wife was having affairs during their marriage, that she used sex as a catalyst for a stream of thought that ultimately became her stories, and that Takatsuki was in some way connected to this aspect of Oto’s life, though she died before this was ever discussed, which, perhaps for the first time, gave Takatsuki insight into the extent of his director’s grief and sorrow at the lack of resolution from his marriage.  The loneliness inherent in living through the grief is painfully evident, so Takatsuki begins telling a story, but its one Kafuku already heard in the film’s opening scene, knowing it’s a story with no ending, something that still causes him considerable discomfort.  However, Oto told Takatsuki more of the story, something that leaves Kafuku completely transfixed as the look in his eyes are remarkable as he insatiably listens to what he’s never heard before.  It becomes apparent that the story was subtextually about Kafuku, that Oto was aware of her transgressions and how it was affecting her husband, with Takatsuki implying she meant to tell him.  He offers this information as a means of solace and consolation, told with a calm demeanor, seeing the fear and sadness in his director’s eyes.  It may be the only selfless act Takatsuki commits during the entire film, as he typically acts on compulsion, yet it’s an extraordinary moment of two men quietly communing over the woman they each loved, perhaps struggling to attain a moment of peace in her departure.  This sequence has a dreamlike effect, helping Kafuku through this stage of grief, with the camera finding each of their faces.  But there’s more, as Kafuku opens up briefly about how he and Oto lost a 4-year old daughter to pneumonia, but if she were alive today, she would be exactly Watari’s age, with the camera finding her face in the car mirror, finally understanding their connection.  The focus of the film completely shifts after that sequence, as Takatsuki exits, with Kafuku pulling out two cigarettes, encouraging Watari to smoke alongside him, something he would never have allowed previously, as he was fastidious about the immaculate care of his car.  While it’s clear he’s emotionally drained, no longer caring about the production, or anything else, and doesn’t really want to talk, Watari tells him she grew up in a community of liars, where it was lifesaving to be able to determine who was telling the truth, sharing her view that Takatsuki was being entirely truthful.  The film shifts dramatically to the quietly mysterious Watari, whose authenticity is stunning, as they make the long pilgrimage to her home town of Kami-junitika village in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, which is completely covered in snow by the time they get there, taking a long and arduous journey that is utterly transforming, with Kafuku offering to share driving time, but she insists she is a professional driver and can drive an entire day without sleep, claiming she can sleep on the long ferry ride (about 18-hours each way).  With both sharing hidden secrets, we learn Watari’s story is considerably more harrowing and appalling than his, yet she tells it in a straightforward manner, without an ounce of theatricality, simply an expression from her heart, revealing startling revelations about her life that are overwhelmingly traumatizing, combined with grief and regrets on his own personal loss, leading to moments that are surprisingly personal and reflective, yet most of the journey is spent in silence, as they come to realize they’re not alone in harboring dark feelings of regret towards the past.  Clearly a newfound respect has developed, and with it a shared bond with viewers, who are taking a remarkable ride without having a clue about the final destination, yet the director offers meticulous visual cues along the way, offering some idea of the length of the journey, as the film has simply taken a notable turn, with all eyes on Watari, whose surprising sense of composure comes at a price, as she basically lost her childhood transporting her mother around, only to be physically abused if she woke her mother up, so she developed painstakingly precise driving habits that are near supernatural in nature.  By the time they arrive to what was once her home, destroyed in a mudslide, with the faint outline of the home still visible under the snowfall, we experience an almost sacred silence as the two embrace and console each other in a tender and excruciatingly personal moment.  The film needs every minute of its extensive length, as the poetic mastery of these remarkable sequences requires a lengthy build-up, intermixing dialogue from Uncle Vanya to accentuate the existential themes with extraordinary intimacy, ultimately becoming a story of grief and healing, using driving as a brilliantly concise metaphor for how storytelling, acting, and the power of love all draw us towards unknown destinations that are certain to change our lives, with art, as a form of catharsis, having a healing capacity to guide us where we need to go.  This is a revelatory film that demonstrates empathy, in the truest sense of the word, where living with trauma simply can’t be described in words, but must be experienced, as each step, each day is a harsh reminder of what must be overcome, and only by living each day can one transcend these painful realities.  While the rest of the world can look away, this is the essence of what the Japanese had to live through since Hiroshima, where one can get consumed by thoughts of the dead, feeling more like a universal peace offering.    


Barack Obama is the only American president to visit Hiroshima since the atomic bombing in 1945.

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