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'Drive My Car' may be the most absorbing ride you take all year

Misaki (Tôko Miura) is the personal driver to a grieving actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in  <em>Drive My Car.</em>
Festival de Cannes
Misaki (Tôko Miura) is the personal driver to a grieving actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Drive My Car.

Don't be scared off by the epic running time of Drive My Car; it may run just shy of three hours, but it flies by like a dream. The director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has adapted and significantly expanded a 2014 short story by Haruki Murakami, but nothing about it feels belabored or drawn out. There's more going on in any five minutes of Drive My Car than in some movies in their entirety. It's an intricately structured drama about love and loss, and the ways in which art can and can't compensate for some of life's disappointments. I'll be surprised if I see a more absorbing movie this year, or a better one.

The story follows a middle-aged Tokyo stage actor named Kafuku, superbly played by Hidetoshi Nishijima. He's a calm, mild-mannered guy who's been married for two decades to a screenwriter named Oto. We get a sense of their mutual devotion when we see Kafuku driving around in his bright red Saab, rehearsing his lines by listening to audio tapes that Oto has painstakingly recorded for him.

But their relationship is more complicated than it appears. Years ago, Kafuku and Oto experienced an agonizing loss that has led her to find solace — and perhaps something more — in relationships with other men. Kafuku has deep compassion for his wife, which doesn't make her betrayal any less painful. And then another tragedy strikes when Oto dies suddenly.

If that sounds like a lot, Drive My Car is just warming up. Two years later, as he tries to move on with his life, Kafuku accepts an arts residency at a theater festival in Hiroshima, where he will direct an experimental production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

But when he gets there, he learns that, per safety regulations, the festival has assigned him a personal driver: a quiet 20-something woman named Misaki, played by Tôko Miura. Kafuku is at first reluctant to hand over the keys to his car, but Misaki turns out to be an excellent driver. She maintains a respectful silence during their rides while Kafuku goes over the play by listening to Oto's cassette tapes.

It may not surprise you to learn that Kafuku and Misaki become friends, or that Misaki turns out to be guarding some sad secrets of her own. But nothing about Drive My Car feels obvious. Both Nishijima and Miura give revelatory performances as two people who are in no hurry to reveal themselves — to each other, or to the audience.

While their characters' relationship is the heart of the movie, it's only one part of it. There have been countless films about the porous boundaries between life and art, but offhand I can't remember too many that so rigorously dramatized the life of an artist. Hamaguchi immerses us in Kafuku's audition, casting and rehearsal process, which is especially fascinating because this Uncle Vanya is a multi-lingual production. It may sound challenging for a bunch of actors to connect onstage while performing in a mix of Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Korean sign language. Then again, Hamaguchi seems to suggest, how much do people speaking the same language really understand each other?

Things get even juicier when Kafuku casts a popular young actor named Takatsuki, who Kafuku knows had an affair with his wife. But characteristically, Hamaguchi sets up a potentially melodramatic situation, only to take a less predictable route. The two men have a couple of tense but polite conversations, revealing the contrast between the impulsive, hot-headed Takatsuki and the cooler, more measured Kafuku. He's resentful of this young man, but also intrigued: He's trying to learn something about his wife that he couldn't figure out on his own.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has been one of the most exciting new talents in world cinema for a few years now. In movies like Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which came out earlier this year, he pulls us deep into the mysteries and ambiguities of his characters' relationships. The emotionally overwhelming Drive My Car brings him to a new level of mastery. Its sensibility is a wonderful marriage of the two authors that shaped it: It has Murakami's feel for loneliness and alienation and Chekhov's compassion for human frailty. It's a rare filmmaker who can take a theatrical stage or the inside of a car — and turn them both into spaces of profound human connection.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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