Credit: Janus
by Ryan Swen Film

Best Films of 2021: Drive My Car

January 8, 2022

#3. Of all the innumerable gambits and devices that Ryūsuke Hamaguchi deploys in his immense Drive My Car, his particular use of language may be the most beautiful and fundamental. On some level, this has almost been taken for granted: the film is an expanded adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, Kafuku (Nishijima Hidetoshi) is a theater director and actor, and the staging of Uncle Vanya at the Hiroshima festival draws all the characters introduced after the first forty minutes into the same orbit. And so it’s natural that so much time would be dedicated to the analysis of speech, to paying particular attention to dialogue and its structure in a manner that some might not associate as stringently with a typical arthouse film, even one as relatively accessible as this one. But Hamaguchi’s fascination goes even deeper than that. Kafuku presents a concise yet mystic summation of Chekhov that might be taken as something of a mission statement for the film, stating that he has refused to play Vanya because “when you say his lines, it drags out the real you,” something that cannot be borne by a man so wracked with doubt and grief in such an exposed setting.

But the question of where the lines end and something more indefinite, yet just as full of truth, begins is left hanging. It’s very much worth noting that this dialogue comes two-thirds of the way through Drive My Car, and that soon afterwards Chekhov, in a stage or even audiotape form, will be set aside for a flight into the countryside, where the Vanya/Sonya dynamic will be played out in less obviously locked-down settings. Yet herein lies a paradox: this penultimate stretch of the film, in which Kafuku and Watari (Miura Tōko) lay bare the pasts of themselves and those they lost, is at once the quietest — there is even a moment where the sound completely drops out as the Saab arrives in the snow — and the most obviously narratively-driven part of the film, which fully commits to its transposition of Chekhov’s characters onto Hamaguchi’s central two figures. Indeed, one of the longest takes in the film, a five-minute emotional, approaches theatricality in its locked-down medium shot and simple staging, with Kafuku on the left and Watari on the right talking to each other. So, if Kafuku’s assessment of Chekhov is meant to then emanate both forward and backward, it does so in a way that effectively throws each and every scene into relief. The rehearsal scenes assume even greater importance, and various moments of explicit emotional revelation, like Takatsuki’s (Okada Masaki) monologue or the wondrous conversation with Lee Yun-a (Park Yu-rim), are linked in the viewer’s mind to a sense of transference, a feeling that exposure to Uncle Vanya has allowed for a freedom to express one’s true self in a way otherwise limited by reticence or the limitations of societal conventions or customs, even coming down to the language barriers that are frequently invoked. And it is notable that, though Oto’s (Kirishima Reika) taped reading of Chekhov is not heard again after this turning point, her nature, previously construed as potentially duplicitous and unknowable, becomes something much more open and revelatory. Hamaguchi fills his films with these evolutions of understanding, with these transformations of scenes that might be seen as simply quotidian into a realm that represents a staging ground for new perspectives and emotions. In its scope and indelible etchings of its characters, Drive My Car may be the fullest expression yet of one of the director’s greatest strengths.