Love, loss and a journey in light and shadows






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Drive My Car movie cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Masaki Okada, Reika Kirishima

Drive My Car movie director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Drive My Car movie rating: 2.5 stars

As advertised, Drive My Car is a road movie. Of course it is. That’s what the title says, and the film takes us accordingly for long drives in a red Saab in the company of two mismatched people, where they, of course, learn the power of connection. The result is a strikingly unusual rumination on love and loss, and that has to do with the prolific Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s skill in opening up closed spaces through conversation.

When people are in a confined space, and the journey is long, it is a time out of time: many of us use it to do things which are hard or tedious, or intensely pleasurable. The car can become a home away from home, where a change of clothes nestles in the back seat. When you have the luxury of being driven, it can be an office on wheels, where dense files can be flipped through, away from pleasurable distractions. It can be a place to tryst for illicit lovers, away from prying eyes. It can be a sanctuary: taking deep breaths and centering can be surprisingly easy in a moving vehicle. It can also be a space for carving pockets of enormously fruitful conversations.

Celebrated Tokyo-based theatre director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is in Hiroshima by invitation of the local repertory to put together a multi-lingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. When he discovers that a young woman called Misaki (Toko Miura) will be his chauffeur, he makes his displeasure clear. It’s not so much to do with her as it is about how he likes the time in the car to be on his own, where he goes over his lines, and thinks things through. Misaki stays impassive, backing expertly out of a tight parking place, with nary a break or bump. And then she begins to drive, smooth as butter, up and down the scenic coastal roads in Hiroshima, and he starts to loosen up. Both begin by inhabiting their respective spaces, her behind the wheel, him in the passenger seat. Slowly they shift; he moves up ahead, next to her. By the end, they have learnt not only the bends and stretches of the road, but each other’s contours. They have shared pain, exchanged memories, and learnt ways of healing each other.

Hamaguchi’s three-hour film, based on a Haruki Murakami’s short story, is a masterful examination of what it is to be human. How do we understand one another? To know someone from the inside is impossible, even when the connection is deep; we can spend several lifetimes in the quest for that most elusive thing — a perfect partner.

Yusuke is middle-aged, and still grieving from the loss of his beautiful wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a successful playwright herself. From what we see of them in the movie’s lengthy prologue, it is clear that there is still intimacy left in their marriage, as they relax in bed, limbs wrapped around each other in post-coital bliss. But it is also evident that Oto’s passions are spent among others, and that Yusuke is aware of it. It leaves him, and us, wondering what kind of a relationship it really was: were they truly still together, or were they just going through the motions?

The film doesn’t bother giving us any answers. Life isn’t about tying neat bows around intractable problems. But the experience of getting a bunch of diverse actors to come to an accommodation and an understanding of their material teaches Yusuke a thing or two about communication above and beyond the actual act of directing the play. This group, which include a well-known celebrity who also happens to be his wife’s one-time lover Koji (Masaki Okada), speak in different tongues; one even uses Korean sign language. They begin by sitting across the table doing line readings in different languages, and come together on stage as a well-oiled unit. Art trumps difference, and creative ferment knows no language.

Committing three hours to a film can be a challenge. But not when it is a work of art which gives us a new way of seeing. Drive My Car had already corralled several awards before its Best International Feature triumph at the Oscars earlier this week. It is streaming on Mubi, and I urge you not to miss it.

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