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Film Reviews

Oscar-nominated 'Drive My Car' is simply a masterpiece

DRIVE MY CAR_Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura.jpg
Janus Films
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's 'Drive My Car' (2021).

The new movie from Japan, Drive My Car, has been honored all over the world and nominated for four Oscars, including Best Motion Picture.

When the credits roll for Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, it’s already 41 minutes into the film. From here, the story is about Yûsuke Kafuku, an actor and director, who takes up a two-month residency at a theater in the city of Hiroshima. It feels like the beginning of things, but those 41 minutes have piled plenty of baggage on Kafuku-san, as he’s called by the actors and producers who admire him. And since Drive My Car is a full three hours long, there’s still lots of time to work all that out.

Kafuku-san’s task is to stage the Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s 1898 play Uncle Vanya, and if you want to know how potent that play is, Drive My Car is a good place to start. Like Uncle Vanya, Drive My Car starts slowly. Those first 41 minutes introduce the personal baggage Kafuku-san brings with him to Hiroshima. He has much to understand about his own life, and the Chekov play is what guides him.

Among other things in the beginning, you learn that Kafuku-san and his wife lost their only child, a daughter, when she was very young. And you realize that this lonely, dispirited man, who has almost no affect, had a difficult marriage before his wife died suddenly, two years before his residency in Hiroshima. They were much in love, passionate with each other and she was a writer. They talk about her dreams and her ideas for scripts and stories; they’re as attached artistically as emotionally, but she had other lovers, and Kafuku-san is still much torn over the complications of that marriage.

The title of the film comes from the policy of the Hiroshima theater to forbid visiting artists from driving automobiles while they’re in Hiroshima. Some time ago, a visiting artist killed someone while driving. It was an accident, but Kafuku-san is not allowed to drive himself.

That matters because Kafuku-san specifies he must live an hour away from the theater, so he can study by listening to tapes of the play’s dialogue read by his late wife. His driver is a very young woman in sneakers and jeans — she looks like a skateboarder. All this upsets his planned routines, but he makes do.

He also loves his car, a red Saab 9000 which looks out of place on the streets in and around Hiroshima. And very beautiful. The roads are crisp, with clean white buildings all around, maybe because the city was completely leveled by the atom bomb in 1945, and looks relatively new. Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi makes the red Saab luminous as it glides around the curves in the nearly-empty freeways that look gracious, generous and inviting, as if the whole world is ready for what Chekov will do to these actors and especially to Kafuku-san.

The rehearsals with the actors are as flat as Kafuku-san’s mood. He has them, read in monotones They grow restless with his directing, which they think prevents them from acting. But then, when he sees that they’re absorbing the magnificence of the play, he says, “Something happened here — but it’s just between actors. Now we open it to the audience.”

And he adds, “Chekov is terrifying. When you say his words, it drags out the real you.”

That’s when viewers get what’s happening. Drive My Car sneaks up on you, and without warning you realize the depth of what you’re experiencing. The film offers a slow process of discovering, and what you discover is something like what happens to Kafulu-san, but it’s not just on screen, it’s in each viewer.

And the movie doesn’t end when the screen goes dark. If you’re paying attention, it sticks with you for a long time.