Review: 'Drive My Car' a profound reminder of the importance of the journey rather than the destination
A surprising title has been popping up on more than one year-end "Best of" lists: "Drive My Car." It's only "surprising" because as a Japanese film, it isn't a film that many Americans have even heard of, but it stops becoming a surprise for any who have seen it.
That's because "Drive My Car" deserves all the hype it's been getting. A nearly three-hour long drama that speeds by and pulls you in, featuring some powerful performances and complexities not often found, quite frankly, in many domestic films. A year-end list that does not include "Drive My Car" can be taken as an admission that the film wasn't seen by that particular critic (which explains why it doesn't appear on my Best of 2021 list), because it's truly one of the best, most impactful films of the year (it's also Japan's selection and entry for Best International Feature at this year's Academy Awards).
Describing its plot probably isn't going to win anyone over who might be skeptical about watching "Drive My Car," because it really has so much more going on than any plot synopsis can account for. But here goes: A famous TV and stage actor, Yusuke Kafuku (a brilliantly constrained Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) have some unique bonds that tie them together. They lost their 4-year-old daughter to pneumonia years ago, and Oto has discovered that her best writing comes immediately after (and often during) sex. As he drives his Saab to his performances, he listens to tapes that Oto has made for him as he rehearses his lines, and the tapes are perfectly timed out for Yusuke to read his portion...signifying just how in-sync and in-rhythm the two are.
That is, at least what Yusuke believes. He discovers that Oto has been cheating on him with a young actor, Koji (Masaki Okada), but says nothing about it. We don't find out why exactly until much later in the film. When tragedy strikes out of nowhere, Yusuke finds himself alone. He takes a two-month residency as a stage manager for a production of the Anton Chekhov play, "Uncle Vanya," and as part of the gig, he requests that he be put up in a hotel at least one hour away so that he can still experience his long car rides. It's allowed, but he's given a young female driver, Lee Yoo-na (Park Yoo-rim) and the two slowly and naturally end up being the best things to ever happen to each other...in a non-romantic way.
The play ends up casting the young actor Koji, who had an affair with Yusuke's wife. The drama you'd expect to play out given this situation is not at all what happens in the movie.
"Drive My Car" is about what connects us, and our perceptions of these connections. It's also about language and how we communicate. This version of "Uncle Vanya" ends up casting actors who perform in Korean, Japanese, English and in Korean sign language, a metaphor for how art is universal, but also ironic in that some of the people in the film that speak the same language are often the ones that have the hardest time communicating with one another. People are revealed to be deeper than what we first believe them to be, as the movie slowly peels back layer after layer of not just Yusuke, but everyone else in his company.
It's contemplative and deep, but never boring. "Drive My Car" challenges our expectations and never provides us with a road map for where it's headed. The journey is the focus, but the destination ends up being worthy of the ride we're taken on.
Genre: Drama, Foreign.
Run Time: 2 hours 59 minutes.
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yoo-rim Park, Reika Kirishima, Sonia Yuan, Masaki Okada.
Based on the short story by Takamasa Oe
Adapted and Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi ("Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy," "Happy Hour," "Solaris").
"Drive My Car" is in theaters in the Detroit area beginning Friday, January 7th, 2022.
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