VIFF 2021 Review: Drive My Car (ドライブ マイ カー)

A young Hiroshima chauffeur (played by Toko Miura) and the director she drives around (played by Hidetoshi Nishijimi) form an unexpected bond in the Japanese film Drive My Car.

Drive My Car is one of two Japanese films I saw at the VIFF on Saturday the 9th. It’s a film that turns out to be more than what one expect of it.

The film begins with Yusuke Kafuku and his wife Oto. They appear happily married at the start. Oto is a housewife while Yusuke is a stage actor, and doing very well. Oto frequently gives Yusuke story ideas which he could one day adapt and direct, even while they both have sex! They were parents to a daughter, who died at a young age 20 years earlier. They still hold a religious memorial for her on the anniversary of her death. He has just finished doing a play with rising young Japanese actor Koji Takatsuki. Soon after, he is given an assignment to do a directing job in Russia. Just before he is to board the plane at Narita, he’s told of a one-day delay. He goes back to his house, only to find Koji having sex with Oto, which they don’t notice. Days later, Yusuke has a car accident and learns of glaucoma in his right eye. Yusuke tries to recover, but soon, Oto dies of a hemorrhage.

Yusuke needed two years to recover from this all. It started affecting his work as he had trouble dealing with his first role after her death: the role of Vanya in Uncle Vanya. His first project is to co-direct a multilingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya with a Korean director names Lee Yoon-a. It is to be staged in Hiroshima during a theatre festival. One thing is that Yusuke meets a young woman named Misaki. She is to be his driver from hotel to theatre. Yusuke doesn’t like the idea of a driver. He wants to do his own driving. However festival insurance rules means having a driver for the directors is a must. One of their directors from years past died in a car accident during production. That’s why directors for this company have drivers. Yusuke reluctantly agrees to allow her to drive his Saab.

The drives to and from the theatre start without conversation. Misaki simply drives Yusuke to the theatre. Some friction starts when Yusuke wants to use the car’s tape player to recite his lines: something he commonly does as he rehearses shows. It starts with friction, but she complies. Yusuke and co-director Lee start the auditions for the play. They audition many actors from various parts of Asia and other countries. The languages vary from Japanese to Korean, Taiwanese and even Korean sign-language. One of those auditioning is Koji. Koji switch from television to theatre after his career was one tabloid scandal after another. You can tell Yusuke has feelings of contempt for him. Yusuke declines to be an actor himself in the production because of how emotional Chekhov’s works are too emotionally draining.

The film starts read-through rehearsals. Most are Japanese-speaking, but there’s also Korean-speaking, a Taiwanese-speaking American and the woman who does Korean sign-language. Koji has also been cast in the play. Both Yusuke and Lee go through the rehearsals. The friction is no bigger than your typical friction on a theatre set. Misaki continues to drive Yusuke and the two start to develop conversation. Misaki is a chain-smoker and just briefly tells Yusuke of the death of her mother in a landslide disaster.

As the play starts progressing to the physical rehearsals, where an LED screen above flashes the dialogue in many languages to the audience, the play gets its common friction. If there are any hostile feelings between Yusuke and Koji, Yusuke keeps it to himself. He has to get along with Koji as they are producing. One night, the director Lee invites Yusuke to dinner at his house. Misaki is also invited. Lee meets the wife, who is the actress who is performing in sign-language. It’s a happy marriage.

One night Yusuke and Misaki go into the town for drinks. They come across Koji. Koji is at the bars hoping to get away from it all. However people trying to get his photo annoys him even to the point he gets violent with one. Since Koji is too drunk to drive, he gets a ride with Yusuke from Misaki. During the time, Koji confesses his affair with Oto. He tries to give Yusuke words of comfort of what a wonderful woman Oto was. He even tries to suggest that it was through Oto they meet by fate here.

Just a week before the show is about to start, it was learned that Koji is under investigation for committing manslaughter from that night at the bars. The play continues rehearsals despite the temporary detainment of Koji. After the rehearsal, Yusuke allows Misaki to go to the area where the landslide that took her mother happened. They go to the area. Misaki starts letting out her feelings and breaks into tears. There, Yusuke also confesses his failings to Oto after the death of their daughter. He too is in tears and they embrace together. Uncle Vanya is then staged with Misaki watching from the audience. She watches the ending scene with intensity where the actress playing Sonya signs about the need to stoically carry on living in the face of crushing disappointment. The film ends in a questionable way.

This is a rare story. This is a case of a director of theatre being escorted by a young driver who’s the same age his late daughter would be. We don’t notice it at first, but both are hurting inside and both need healing. Over time, they are mostly silent. Then over time, they strike up an unlikely friendship that eventually takes them to where they grieve together. One is first tempted to think around the middle of the film, Yusuke would soon be romantically interested in Misaki, but that’s for you to judge for yourself.

It’s not just about Yusuke and Misaki. It’s also about Yusuke trying to make peace with himself as the husband who failed. Maybe he blames himself for Oto’s premature death. It’s also about making peace with Koji, Oto’s ‘other man.’ In a lot of ways, it’s about Yusuke criss-crossing with a lot of people as he’s on his journey to heal and make peace. He’s a man trying to heal from his failed marriage and his driver is trying to heal from her mother’s death which she blames himself for. Yusuke is a television actor who quit television for theatre after his daughter’s death. Koji, the ‘other man,’ quit television for theatre with the scandals of his behavior plaguing his life. Yet they find themselves working together in the film. It could be a case where the fates are a case where Oto brought them there to forgive each other, as Koji suggested.

The mixing in of the story of Uncle Vanya being done in multilingual fashion adds into the story. I think that’s the point of the story. I believe it’s to show how art is universal in its feelings and connections. Art transcends language barriers to deliver the feelings of love and hurt we all share. Even the detail of the play that’s being staged in Hiroshima has a bearing of importance in this story.

This is a smart film about a director who is trying to make peace over the sudden death of his adulterous wife. The inclusion of a ‘chauffeur’ who herself hasn’t fully come to terms with her mother’s death in a disaster and the young actor in his play who was one of his wife’s ‘other men’ adds to the story of the healing process for both the director and the driver. One glitch about the film is that it goes for a long period of time. Possibly too long. Even at the start, forty minutes of story go by before the opening credits roll. The story in itself is almost three hours long. It’s a very good story that deals with universal human emotions intertwined with art, but it is drawn out for too long of a period of time. You’re left wondering if all that time was really worth it.

This is a very good film for director/writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi. He’s had renown before for his filmmaking like Wheel Of Fortune and Fantasy and Happy Hour. Here he creates a smart film of three people that need healing and how it’s through the power of art that they are able to make it happen and be given the will to live despite all that’s happened. There are some noticeable mistakes like the length of the film and the ending that gets you wondering, but it’s still a good film to watch. Hidetoshi Nishijima does a great performance as Yusuke being a man that needs healing, but doesn’t show it on the outside. Toko Miura is also very good as Misake. Just like Nishijima as Yusuke, she does a good job of playing a character with hurts she tries to keep hidden until it all comes out that moment together. Masaki Okada is also very good as the troubled Koji. You can tell despite the ego on the outside, he has some personal feelings underneath.

This film has already won an excellent amount of awards. The film won the Best Screenplay Award and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or. The film was also a nominee for the Best Feature Award at the Chicago Film Festival and a nominee for the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival. The film was recently selected as Japan’s entry in the category of Best International Feature Film for this year’s Oscar race.

Drive My Car is a film of two individuals who meet by fate, but help each other heal. It does a good job of mixing the story line with the art of theatre and the mixing of languages, but it’s too long of a film. A good story, but too elongated nevertheless.

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