Film of the Week: Drive My Car
If adapting Murakami Haruki for film, the proven method is to work from a short and expand that particular narrative to its limits. Going for a full-length novel is a fools errand. His writing is too subdued and internal for hundreds of pages to survive conversion to screen—Tran Anh Hung’s maligned if ambitious Norwegian Wood adaptation stands as proof. So, take a simple story, and let all of the latent complexities, the restraint and the unique atmosphere seep deep down, into the films marrow. Ichikawa Jun’s Tony Takitani is brief and devastating; Lee Chang-dong’s Burning leans into the luxury and serves148 minutes of deliberate and mesmerising cinema.
The latest endeavour takes the luxury even further with emerging auteur Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s immediate masterpiece Drive My Car—running just shy of three hours. A long time for any film. Yet, I spoke to others after the screening I attended and asked the question: did anyone stir during the entire run-time? No, or barely; and it’s even stranger considering just how quiet large stretches of the film are—the film often devolving into total silence. One used the word enraptured. I was seemingly not alone in that crowd, hanging on every moment and every word, taken by Hamaguchi for a ride so smooth you’d forget even gravity exists.
Drive My Car is a film about processes. In the years after a sudden loss, actor Kafuku (Nishijima Hidetoshi) takes on a residency directing a multi-language stage play of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. He learns the lines—long since past needing to—through audio tapes made by his wife that he plays in the car, and prescribes his actors first learn their parts to the same robotic rhythm, by the same method. He is assigned a driver by the theatre company, the stoic 23 year old Watari (Miura Toko), who ‘only knows how to drive.’ Both are trapped in a cycle of avoiding grieving—of death, infidelity, loss of agency and drive—and ensnare this act within the automatic actions of their profession. He recites, she drives; the car they share becomes a parallel playground for coping, and later, a shared and therapeutic space of reconciliation with oneself. For labour is every characters tried and true mechanism for powering trough periods of difficulty. With the exception of the more self-aware Yoon-A (Park Yoo-rim—a mirror of Sonya in Vanya), their work is as far removed as possible from the volatile progression and regression involved in actively confronting their trauma. Directing, performing, or gliding across the road—everything is about control.
Murakami’s text is essentially repression and impulsivity running parallel to one another, and Hamaguchi is a deft enough filmmaker to harness that for the intended (unusual) emotional response. There are no peaks or flares—rather, a gently tapped emptying and unburdening. The more clarity is sought, the more the waters muddy; sometimes the definitive answer is incomprehensible by the virtue that the most confusing and conflicting of motivations is simple, and simply human. For characters to accept that, and distance themselves from the complexity of not the emotion—put simply, not overthinking it: that’s the method, the end of the process. And when that revelation is shared with another? Well, as it’s parsed out over a 179 minute period, it feels richly earned, for character and audience alike.
The screenplay (by Hamaguchi and Oe Takamasa—expertly weaving Checkov’s words into the films fabric), subtle sound design and performances are all particularly extraordinary. Not least Kirishima Reika as Kafuku’s wife, Oto. Her brittle, warm and absolutely genuine turn in the films (40 minute, I guessed!) prologue haunts the rest of the film. There is also benefit to Hamaguchi’s interest in his women characters interiors, rather than Murakami’s revelling in his male character’s imagined ‘mystery of women.’ Despite Drive My Car’s dominant subjective viewpoint from Kafuku, there is a fascinating and considered trifecta of character studies with Watari, Yoon-A and Oto. Each, as everyone does, embrace their working methods as the process out of their periods of grief; to diametrically different results to each other and Kafuku.
And, finally, I want to speak on Drive My Car’s attitude towards intimacy. Bad sex scenes in cinema outnumber the good 4:1 or more (a very scientifically defined ratio; no need to question it), mostly because they act as soft-core entertainment and speak nothing to the characters, allowing us to witness hidden dynamics and motivations important to the narrative. Drive My Car’s solitary scene is different. Storytelling permeates the moment between the lovers; there are discussions of a voyeur who once used to be a lamprey—a noble one, in fact. It may be the most comfortably intimate, weird, characterful and narratively meaningful use of sex on any screen since… Hell, maybe American Gods when Fuller and Green were in control? And while this may be an odd aspect to end this review on, here’s my thinking: Hamaguchi has crafted an impeccable and powerful tale of grief and automatism where each scene is so well thought out that the story never drags during its three hours. To use that extra space to take something that is often considered extra, perfunctory, not needed, and turned it into something necessary and revelatory… There’s no greater example of the methods and skill to which Hamaguchi adapts Murakami’s story into his own opus.