Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes a leisurely detour along the lonely highways of love and loss, grieving and healing in his latest Cannes competition contender Drive My Car. Adapted from a short story of the same name by globally feted Japanese author Haruki Murakami, this highbrow road movie is an absorbing, technically assured piece of work with poetic depths and novelistic ambitions.
But it is also very slow and ponderous, motoring along in low gear for much of its three-hour runtime. This lethargic pace is underscored when the subtle opening credits finally appear almost 40 minutes into the story. What’s past is prologue, even though it felt like half a movie already. Given Marukami’s fondness for co-opting Beatles song titles, Drive My Car might equally have been called The Long and Winding Road.
Drive My Car
A rambling but ultimately rewarding ride.
Hamaguchi last competed in Cannes three years ago with the offbeat romantic fable Asako I & II, which premiered to generally cool reviews. But his reputation has since recovered, co-writing Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s period thriller Wife of a Spy, winner of the best director prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, before picking up a Silver Bear himself at the 2021 Berlinale for his charming Tokyo triptych Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Pitched firmly at festival and art-house audiences, Drive My Car cements his blossoming reputation as a skilled auteur, though it is unlikely to earn him an invitation to direct the next revved-up Fast and the Furious blockbuster.
While Drive My Car is essentially faithful to Murakami’s skimpy original text, Hamaguchi has expanded the timeline, adding extra locations, secondary characters, deeper backstory and a creditable stab at dramatic resolution. Taking his cue from Murakami’s brief reference to Uncle Vanya, he also elevates Chekhov’s melancholy stage classic into a recurring motif, repeatedly returning to Sonya’s closing speech about the need to stoically carry on living in the face of crushing disappointment. As Hamaguchi’s wounded protagonists embark on their own emotional journey, this theme resonates with increasing urgency.
Set in Tokyo, the first act is a self-contained domestic tragedy. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an internationally acclaimed stage actor and theater director feted for his Chekhov and Beckett productions. He enjoys a deep, passionate connection with his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), who shares her latest half-dreamed plot ideas with him during their sensually presented sex sessions.
The couple have survived personal catastrophe, the death of their only daughter 20 years before, plus minor medical issues, including Kafuku’s recently diagnosed glaucoma. This literal “blind spot” comes to serve a metaphorical purpose in the narrative when Kafuku returns home unexpectedly one day to find Oto having sex with one of her actor colleagues, handsome young hothead Koshi (Masaki Okada). Slipping away unobserved, Kafuku then agonizes about whether to raise the subject with his wife, shunning her apparent attempts at clearing the air. Before any resolution is possible, Oto dies suddenly, taking her secrets to the grave.
Two years later, Kafuku is working at a theater festival in Hiroshima, directing an ambitious polyglot production of Uncle Vanya. The cast will feature Japanese, Chinese and Korean actors speaking multiple languages, including sign language. But the veteran actor declines to reprise the role of Vanya himself, fearing the emotional exposure. “Chekhov is terrifying,” he argues, “it drags out the real you.”
Festival insurance rules mean Kafuku must grudgingly hand over his beloved lipstick-red vintage Saab car to his officially assigned driver Misaki (Toko Miura), a surly, taciturn, chain-smoking young woman on the run from her own traumatic family history. Their long drives around Hiroshima slowly evolve from terse formal exchanges to painful, candid confessionals. This theme of strangers sharing tender secrets is present in Marukami’s original story, but also in Hamaguchi’s previous films, notably Wheel of Fate of Fortune. As the director states in his Cannes press notes, cars are like neutral emotional buffer zones that encourage frank revelations, “intimate conversations that are only born within that closed-off, moving space.”
An unexpected arrival at the Uncle Vanya casting sessions is Oto’s ex-lover Koshi, having recently quit his career as a TV pin-up under a cloud of scandal. He and Kafuku form an awkward camaraderie, bonding over their shared love of the same woman without ever quite touching on the affair: “I believe Oto brought us together,” Koshi claims.
Kafuku’s friendship with Koshi is essentially a performance, the older man using skilled fakery to try and uncover deeper truths about his late wife. But his slow-burn connection to Misaki proves more emotionally revealing: two damaged, deep-frozen souls who eventually help each other achieve some kind of closure during a snowy pilgrimage to the far north of Japan.
Though still a relatively young film-maker at 42, Hamaguchi sometimes seems to adopt a starchy cinematic grammar more suited to an older generation of art-house auteurs. He certainly shoots Drive My Car with a rambling, long-form lassitude that drags in places. Banal conversations, stilted monologues and extended theater rehearsals unfold in what feels like real time, adding plenty of texture but scant dramatic import. Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s naturalistic cinematography is technically competent but largely unremarkable, while Eiko Ishibashi’s doleful jazzy score is too thinly deployed.
That said, Drive My Car has admirably serious intentions in its forensic anatomy of love, grief and survivor’s guilt. Nishijima and Miura both give impressively internalized performances, each conveying hidden oceans of anguished intensity via charged silences, haunted stares and opaque dialogue. The closing act also delivers a series of grace notes, including a sublime final twist on Uncle Vanya and a cryptic COVID-era coda which teasingly suggests an ongoing connection between Kafuku and Masaki. There are poetic and profound rewards here, even if Hamaguchi makes us wait too long for this quietly devastating emotional pay-off.