Movie Curiosities: Drive My Car

Looking at what’s in my local multiplex, I’m gravely disappointed. All we’ve got are obscure releases with crappy-to-middling reviews and high-grossing holdovers from December. I have to assume that studios and theaters are skittish about the Omicron mutation of COVID-19 (And who could blame them, really?), because that’s the only reason I can imagine for why the January doldrums are still a thing.

Seriously, why couldn’t we get a January release for Jackass Forever or Top Gun: Maverick or any of the other films stuck in the backlog since this whole pandemic started? Hell, Disney could’ve done everyone a favor and pushed The King’s Man out to January — it might’ve gotten better reviews and returns outside that overwhelming holiday dogpile. Sure, the movies would’ve gotten a bit of a stink because January films are notoriously awful, but why is that stigma still a thing? Thanks to the pandemic, everybody’s streaming their entertainment now. TiVo was enough to make time slots totally irrelevant for television shows — why the hell can’t Netflix and HBO Max do the same for movies?!

But no, Hollywood is a notoriously slow and stubborn beast, so it looks like we’re stuck with crappy January/February releases for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, this is also the time for awards favorites to reach a wider audience after earning acclaim with the voters lucky enough to see it in more limited screenings. Which brings us to Drive My Car.

It is a film with a 98 percent Tomatometer. It was a contender at Cannes last year, a nominee for the Palme d’Or and winner of three awards including Best Adapted Screenplay. It was selected as Japan’s candidate for Best International Feature at the upcoming Oscars. It won Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. It is the first non-English-speaking film (and only the sixth overall) to win Best Picture from the NSFC, the LAFCA, and the NYFCC — all three of the nation’s major film critics’ associations.

It is a three-hour movie. So what on earth have we got here?

This is the story of Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a successful actor in live theatre. He’s married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter with a specialty in writing erotic experimental made-for-TV movies. The kicker is that she gets her best ideas post-coitus, so she’s of course a rampant nymphomaniac. Long story short, Yusuke inevitably discovers that Oto is sleeping around.

But here’s the kicker: He doesn’t confront her about the affair. I won’t get into the multitude of reasons why, but a big one is that shortly after Yusuke finds out that his wife is cheating on him, the poor guy gets into a car accident because a chronic case of glaucoma is slowly degrading his vision. So he’s got that to deal with.

Speaking of which, his car is a distinctive red Saab so archaic and yet so well-maintained that it has a functioning cassette deck. This is important, as Yusuke has this ritual in which Oto records scripts on tape so Yusuke can run his lines while driving. And at this exact moment, Yusuke is memorizing Anton Chekov dialogue to play the eponymous Uncle Vanya.

So Yusuke is acting in a play that deals in family and heartbreak, reciting lines that bluntly discuss marital stress and infidelity, and he’s doing this opposite the recorded voice of his unfaithful wife. Sound awkward? Brother, we haven’t even gotten started yet.

Because one night, Yusuke comes home to find that his wife has died of a freak cerebral hemorrhage. They never got to come clean with each other about the marital infidelity. This inevitably leads to Yusuke choking onstage, unable to get through the role while he’s dealing with so much baggage.

Cut to two years later. Yusuke has been invited to a Hiroshima theatre festival as the artist in residence, directing a multicultural production of “Uncle Vanya” with a cast of actors from all over Asia and the USA. And of all the actors Yusuke could’ve picked to play Vanya, he inexplicably chooses Koji (Masaki Okada), the very same man he caught his wife in bed with.

But wait, there’s more!

Because this particular theatre festival is so paranoid about auto accidents, it’s company policy that resident artists cannot drive their own vehicles. Enter Misaki (Tōko Miura), a prodigious young driver assigned as Yusuke’s personal chauffeur.

Did I mention that this movie is three hours long? I’m sure you can start to see why, because sweet mother of mercy, do we have a lot to unpack here.

Let’s start with the title, because of course the title puts a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between Yusuke and Misaki. Yet while the film could’ve easily gone in an awkward (read: squicky) direction in pushing a romance between an older man and a woman half his age, that’s not what happens. Their relationship is at once more professional and yet more intimate than that. To make a long and spoilery discussion short, we learn more about Misaki as the plot unfolds and it turns out that she’s got some issues with her dead mother in much the same way that Yusuke has issues with his dead wife.

The notion of coping with grief and trauma is a central theme in the film. Hell, the mere act of setting the movie in freaking Hiroshima is enough to make a powerful statement on the topic. Thus Yusuke helps Misaki sort through her own demons, which turns out to be quite therapeutic for him, and vice versa.

Then we have Yusuke’s production, another fine case study in how connecting and communicating with other people can help sort through inner turmoil and trauma. After all, theatre is all about human connection, whether it’s connection between characters, between actors, between the director and the cast, between the actors and the audience, and so on. At one point, Yusuke remarks that Chekov’s text is an uncompromising mirror, reflecting and amplifying every facet of the reader’s soul. It’s astounding how theatre has that power, especially with regard to this particular case study of somebody with so many layers of grief tied up in this particular show.

Even better, there’s the fact that this is a multicultural production by design. Some cast members speak English. Some only speak Korean. Some others speak Mandarin or Japanese. There are a great many language barriers at play, thus the actors — and Yusuke — have to communicate in nonverbal ways. They communicate through body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other such means of conveying aspects of themselves and of their characters that could never come through verbally.

Hands down my favorite example concerns Lee Yoo-na, played by Park Yoo-rim. She’s a Korean actor who’s capable of hearing, but she can only communicate through Korean Sign Language. (Note that I’m specifically referring to Yoo-na — so far as I can tell, Park Yoo-rim has no such disability.) Thus it’s Yoo-na who makes it most explicitly clear that there are non-verbal means of speaking, and ways of interpersonal connection that have nothing to do with speech. Moreover — through a story that I don’t dare spoil here — Yoo-na shares a deeply personal tragedy with more than a few passing similarities to Yusuke’s own horrible past. Thus Yoo-na serves as a crucial reminder that life after trauma is indeed possible, and she shows Yusuke what recovery looks like.

But then there’s the climax. The one climactic scene that left my jaw on the floor, eyes wired open, marveling at what could very well be the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in my life.

This is the climax in which Lee Yoo-na gets onstage and delivers the very monologue that she auditioned with. The contrast between those two scenes does so much to demonstrate how far Yoo-na and Yusuke have come in the time since. In fact, that one scene is the very culmination of Yusuke’s arc, the exact moment when he’s finally able to let go and move on.

Most importantly, that monologue is delivered in a way that could only be done through sign language. I don’t dare spoil exactly how, but the body language, the blocking, and the exact placement of every hand movement built umpteen new additional layers to that monologue. It’s heartfelt, it’s uplifting, it’s moving, and it’s innovative in a way that could not be physically possible if the monologue was merely spoken.

Even at three hours long, Drive My Car is a dense motherfucker. I haven’t even gotten started on the various stories within the narrative. Or the Yusuke-Oto-Koji triangle. Or the relationship between Yusuke, Misaki, and the Saab. Or everything I can’t discuss because of spoilers. This is such a complex and intricate examination of the human condition, comprised of so many interwoven themes about compassion and healing, I was glued to my seat through the entire runtime with the promise of another new layer to peel back.

The only reason why I’m not seeing the film another dozen times and writing a fifteen-page review on this is because of sheer endurance. This might be a tough watch on the big screen, but I can’t possibly recommend the film enough when it comes out on DVD. Watch this movie at your own pace, and take the time you need for it to properly marinate. You’ll be glad you did.

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