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Golden Globe Winner ‘Drive My Car’ Offers a Mesmerizing Tribute to the Power of Theater

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DRIVING MR. KAFUKU Nishijima and Miura play two strangers who turn out to have plenty in common in Hamaguchi's mesmerizing drama. - COURTESY OF SIDESHOW & JANUS FILMS
  • Courtesy Of Sideshow & Janus Films
  • DRIVING MR. KAFUKU Nishijima and Miura play two strangers who turn out to have plenty in common in Hamaguchi's mesmerizing drama.

Great literature knows no national or cultural borders. In past decades, that was a bland, humanistic credo. In these days of rising nationalism, it's a more controversial statement.

But the idea has never been explored as literally or as compellingly as it is in Drive My Car, a 2021 film from Japan. Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, this psychodrama centers on a play within the film: an unusual production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with an international cast. Each actor speaks — or signs — their own native language, with supertitles to guide the audience through the resulting linguistic confusion.

Currently playing at the Savoy Theater, Drive My Car won a Golden Globe and is a likely contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The deal

Yûsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima) Kafuku are a happy middle-aged couple with thriving professions in the arts. Then Oto dies suddenly, leaving Yûsuke to process a secret that changes the whole nature of their relationship.

Two years later, Yûsuke travels to Hiroshima to direct the experimental production of Uncle Vanya described above. He brings with him a cassette tape that Oto made to help him rehearse for an earlier production of the same play. By listening to the recording as he drives to and from the theater in his red Saab 900, Yûsuke will absorb Chekhov's text while remembering his late wife.

For liability reasons, however, the theater company won't allow Yûsuke to do his own driving. A laconic young woman, Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), is hired to chauffeur him. Dismayed at first to have company, Yûsuke soon finds that Misaki's presence in the driver's seat is exactly what he needs.

Will you like it?

If Drive My Car were an American movie, I think we can all guess where that plot would be headed. Misaki would bring light into Yûsuke's gloomy life with her quirky ways, and soon the two of them would fall in love.

Put those thoughts out of your mind, however, because Drive My Car isn't remotely a rom-com. For one thing, 40 minutes of its three-hour run time consist of an extended prologue exploring Yûsuke and Oto's relationship before the latter's death. When Misaki finally shows up, she isn't cute or quirky or a plot device to help Yûsuke process his grief. Rather, we eventually learn, she's grappling with grief of her own.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Yûsuke and Misaki have a relationship parallel to that of Chekhov's Vanya and his spinster niece, Sonya. He's not her father figure, and they aren't a potential couple. They aren't glamorous romantic leads, like the young TV heartthrob (Masaki Okada) whom Yûsuke casts as Vanya. They're just two people of different generations who bond over their quiet endurance of suffering.

Yûsuke praises the smoothness with which Misaki drives his car, allowing him to focus on his late wife's voice on the tape. Hamaguchi's whole film exemplifies that smoothness; lengthy as it is, it's a mesmerizing watch.

The shots are long and carefully composed. Nearly every scene focuses on the hypnotic power of a voice speaking lines or telling a story, counterpointed or reinforced by physical movement. Oto tells Yûsuke stories as they have sex; Oto's Chekhov rendition sets the rhythm of Misaki's driving; the actress who plays Sonya uses rivetingly expressive sign language.

Carefully choreographed, each scene holds our attention the way great theater does, whether we're watching Hamaguchi's story or Chekhov's. The two merge so gradually that the parallels don't seem heavy-handed.

What is the point of staging a play in which the actors can't understand each other? Is it Yûsuke's way of demonstrating the universal power of a classic? Or is Hamaguchi using the language barrier to represent everything that isolates us as human beings, making true communication precious and rare?

Perhaps it's a little of both. When the TV heartthrob bemoans how difficult it is for him to relate to the unfulfilled character of Vanya, Yûsuke tells him that Chekhov's text is "questioning" him. "When you say his lines," he says of the playwright, "it digs out the real you."

This belief in the transformative power of great writing may seem naïve to some, but Hamaguchi makes a fine case for it. His film is both an unforgettable interpretation of a classic and a deft stitching of that classic into a new context. What emerges is a powerful portrait of how two people can find solace in shared pain — and begin to work their way toward hope.

If you like this, try...

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021; rentable): Hamaguchi also scored a festival hit with this anthology film about three different women dealing with romantic entanglements; it won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994; rentable): Louis Malle directed this justly acclaimed version of the Chekhov play, which takes place in a decrepit theater and features Wallace Shawn, Brooke Smith and Julianne Moore.

"Great Performances: Uncle Vanya" (2021; watch it with a VTPBS passport): After the pandemic forced the early closure of director Conor McPherson's London production of the play, he created this screen version. The Guardian wrote that it "crackles with fresh intensity — and gains new shadows from the timing of its release."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Drive My Car 4"