VIFF 2021 Review: Drive My Car

Directed by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Distributed by: Janus Films

Written by Taylor Baker


Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” follows a recent occurrence in the last ten or so years of films inspired by Haruki Murakami’s short stories. The short story in question is also entitled Drive My Car. Which details an aging actor’s relinquishment of responsibility to a driver his theater company brings in. Hamaguchi makes the story his own choosing to eliminate a birthmark for a scar, make a stage actor an actor and director, start earlier in the narrative, and switch which eye a particular character gets glaucoma in. Not to mention a half dozen plus or so other alterations. The spirit of the tale is pregnant within the film, flourishing like vines running up sturdy stone walls in spring. Hamaguchi seems to simultaneously knows he’s nothing without Murakami’s text but he also understands shifting the mode of expression will not deepen the experience. It needs to be innovated upon, comprehensively informed by the visual style, and he seems deferentially to inform us of the role he sees as his in a indicative way through the actions and words of Kufuku.

The film incorporates Anton Chekvov’s 1898 play “Uncle Vanya.” Hamaguchi shifts our lead character Yûsuke Kafuku played by Hidetoshi Nishijima from a simply aging actor in Murakami’s short story to an accomplished actor and stage director, who runs plays with multiple characters speaking different languages. Globalism it seems has seeped into stage productions and rather than feeling bombastic or gaudy it heightens the material. Personalizing it, elevating the intimacy of the audience and the performers, as everyone collaborates to bring “Uncle Vanya” to life in a way that emboldens the narrative and feels wholly new. The film begins with Kufuku’s wife Oto nude sitting in bed looking down at a prostrate Kufuku while she’s bathed in darkness recounting a story to her husband, her lover. The sharing of the story immediately deepens the intimate connection between the viewer and the characters. We feel privy to something private, something between two impassioned souls.

This emotionality, this witnessing of personality (emphasis on “personal”) is on display in nearly every frame. The very heart of our leads and larger supporting characters bleed out infusing into our minds in a conversation where their personal rationale which we can’t see or know for certain is playing like a loud speaker in our head as we watch Masaki Okada’s Takatsuki run up the stairs chasing a young man who had snapped a photo of him with Kufuku, or one of Kufuku’s production team translating his wife’s South Korean sign language. This interiority we’re experiencing with the work is precisely like the engagement with the text one gets when reading one of Murakami’s novels or short stories.

There is an actual interaction, a personal monologue that the film drives within you, showing you bigger things than itself within it and inviting you to feel, to touch, to listen, and to observe it. Hamaguchi doesn’t simply make a film, he creates something one could characterize as both an epic and as “literature”, as Murakami has with some of his stories. If you’ve read my work for any amount of time you know by now that I consider one of the greatest works of modern fiction to be Murakami’s Killing Commendatore which invites one to consider it more as a sculpture that one is physically pressing their flesh against after completion than any sort of book or even painting which the novel itself is based around. So to does “Drive My Car” invite one into a film while morphing into something bigger and more substantive than the word film can currently convey. Maybe that says something about the quality of cinema today, but I think instead it is more about this work itself. It’s modal evolution, it’s inference and interplay within itself and how clearly and cleanly without losing a step communicates its vastness to the viewer who is in turn interpreting. It’s about the humanity of the piece, that aches to our very core, and echoes in our minds long after the lights have come up and we’ve arrived back at home. “Drive My Car” isn’t just splendid cinema, it’s a bastion of possibility and wonder built on humanity that you can’t help but love.

Drive My Car” Trailer

Drive My Car” was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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