Thursday, January 27, 2022

Drive My Car

I occasionally review or blog about films not so much because I imagine that I have the reach and influence to influence audiences broadly, but because I'm trying to figure out what to say when discussing the film more directly, and that's certainly the case with Drive My Car. I like it a lot, but I still find myself at a bit of a loss of how to recommend it to people outside of my film friends, the ones who aren't going to see a 3-hour Japanese movie about a withdrawn man directing a Russian play without a lot of assurances that it's not dull or pitched above their heads. I'm not sure I quite know how to do it, especially at a time when theaters and major platforms have been so flooded with easily categorizable, targeted material that this film's best qualities, when talked up, can sound like a rebellion. It's not - this is just a good movie, and I both love what plays theaters now and hate to feel like a scold - but it feels like one has to tread a bit lightly to make a case for this sort of drama right now.

For those who are interested, it's playing one more day at the Somerville Theatre (27 January 2022) but should hang around the Coolidge and Kendall for at least another week. They also have director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's other film from 2001, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, playing Monday to Thursday next week, and near as I know that's the only time and place it's hitting screens in the Boston area. I wasn't planning on anywhere near this much Japanese film coverage for this month, but the theaters are kind of shoveling it at me.

Also, this was my first time at the Somerville but not the main theater for the first time since they re-opened post-shutdown/renovation, and it's a bit odd. I got used to the new box office/concession stand quick enough, but my brain says that it starts to get tight when headed downstairs to theaters 2 & 3. I "know" there's supposed to be another stairway going upstairs to where the Crystal Ballroom has replaced screens 4 & 5, and it being walled off seems to shrink the stairs down more than it probably does. The space that used to house the Museum of Bad Art doesn't look like it's going to get that sort of use any more, even as the lounge during IFFBoston (and, yeah, I'm curious how that works if it's in-person this year, what with previously using all 5 of the theater's screens). Oh, and it looks like the old Load Bearing Piano is downstairs too, although it's not labeled as such.

Anyway - the movie's good, and I went long, and probably nudged the star rating up a bit afterward because I don't really write this much about something that isn't worth that sort of attention.

Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 January 2022 in Somerville Theatre #3 (special presentation, DCP)

For as good as Drive My Car is - and it is very good indeed - it's the sort of movies that film-lovers may hesitate to recommend to friends who interact with the medium more casually. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's film has several traits that people have come to associate with films that are difficult to grapple with; it's long, it's Japanese, it draws on other works one may feel uncultured for not knowing, and it alternates between people just talking and purposefully not talking without a lot of activity in between. It is not, however, hard to digest at all; it's mature and dense but works in large part because Hamaguchi puts what he is doing front and center.

The film follows Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director and actor whose productions frequently include actors from multiple nations each performing in their native language. His latest is a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. He chooses a cast including an actress from Taiwan, Janice Chan (Sonia Yuan), and one from Korea, Lee Yoon-A (Park Yoo-Rim), who communicates using sign language though she appears mute rather than deaf. Most surprisingly, he has Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in the title role - not only is it one Yusuke has played frequently, but Takatsuki is quite young for it. Yusuke also clearly suspects that Takatsuki was the one with whom his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) was having an affair when things collapsed two years earlier. Part of what happened then was an automobile accident that revealed Yusuke had glaucoma, which is likely why the festival has hired 23-year-old Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) as his driver despite the drive being part of Yusuke's process, though they claim it is standard practice.

Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe don't start in Hiroshima, although I gather Haruki Murakami's short story does and flashbacks would in some ways be more conventional, revealing Yusuke's background as needed rather than taking 40 minutes to get to the opening credits and the main thrust of the film. Instead, the thinking seems to be that what put Yusuke in this headspace isn't a secret and isn't a twist to him; it's weight that has accumulated in real time, something that's always there rather than popping up unexpectedly, and while Hamaguchi and the rest do still have a few details that won't be explained until Yusuke has a reason to explain them, one can see how the filmmakers commit to telling the story from his point of view by comparing how pieces of others' stories are sprung on him while his is generally laid out early.

Which is not to say that Yusuke is an open book. He is, in fact, as bottled up as a character can be at times, spending much of that opening act in false mustaches or other bits of obscuring makeup; at another point he walks in on his wife with her lover, quietly leaves before being noticed, and spends the next scene acting as though nothing is amiss. He at times seems to encourage his cast to put away the emotion their characters feel during table reads, focusing on creating a rhythm that they can maintain without actually communicating directly with their co-stars. What Hidetoshi Nishijima does in the role is to hint that this sort of repression takes effort, that Yusuke's skill at presenting a calm face is not natural despite the practice. It lets later plain-spoken moments carry weight by the relative lack of tension in his voice, lending strength to simple truth.

The commitment to Yusuke's perspective and the story being told means that, in some ways, Oto must be a bit of an enigma, but also must be a complete person that Yusuke loves. Actress Reika Kirishima handles a lot of that, and she is terrific, making a strong impression in relatively little screen time playing Oto in straight-ahead fashion rather than being coy or ambiguous. Instead, Hamaguchi finds ways to demonstrate distance in the Kafukus' marriage. Consider the opening scene, where she's telling him a story in bed, and the cameras and lighting make Oto a shadowy figure while the reverse angles show Yusuke clearly, or how the story itself is all proxies for connection while establishing arbitrary boundaries. Later, Yusuke takes cassettes of her performing the other parts of Uncle Vanya with him in the car, ostensibly so he can rehearse while driving, but there are times when it seems more like him rehashing arguments that he cannot confront her with directly.

Much of the film centers around acting and performance, to the point where some viewers may get that nervous feeling of wondering if the people making it have other frames of reference, but once one dives in, it's fascinating to watch. Consider Takatsuki and Janice's joint audition, where Yusuke's suspicions about the young actor merge with just how willing he seems to be physically intimidating and tactile with someone he's just met. That the two can't really speak without an interpreter (Janice speaks Mandarin and English depending on context but not Japanese) is writ large during rehearsal, with the cast trying to work together despite speaking at least four different languages in the same scene.

It's a marked contrast to what Toko Miura's doing as Misaki. We notice a scar on the young woman's face early on, and it calls attention to just how little she is offering about herself at first, beyond being very good as a driver and somewhere between reserved and professional where her job is concerned. Eventually, she opens up a bit more, but is never as consciously sophisticated about it as the actors, though Miura is good at walking into a scene with tension, knowing she's not as cultured or of the same caste as the others she's around, though she works to project confidence. There's more to her, of course, and Miura does well to capture how getting it out there can be a relief but not a total one, because a problem doesn't vanish when one speaks of it.

She's also part of a number of scenes that emphasize just how precisely Hamaguchi can be working. Consider one scene where Yusuke compliments her driving, and she almost seems mortified to be receiving that sort of praise, standing from a table and seeming to crumple below the frame; a few moments later, it becomes clear that she's playing with their hosts' dog, and the filmmakers have turned a moment of seeming agonizing self-doubt and repression into one of the first where Misaki is open and cheerful. There's a lot of really masterful use of the camera and frame in this film, from that opening use of shadow to the way aerial shots make it a little bit of work to track Yusuke's bright red car on clean gray roadways, or the turmoil of how one road trip highlights the very different lighting of streets and tunnels at night, not able to settle down. There's tremendous precision in every choice of shot, successions of striking images that are nevertheless not flashy.

Hamaguchi walks a lot of fine lines over the film's nearly three hours, always finding the middle path between being icy and melodramatically wrenching without getting close to either gutter. Drive My Car is long, multi-lingual, and on the surface seems built to play to the audience that knows Chekhov and which is actively looking for symbolism, but Hamaguchi never seems to presume that's who he's playing to, choosing to connect with clarity throughout.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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