Hamaguchi: Drive My Car (2021)
I rarely find films tedious, but Drive My Car was one of them. To me, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s film felt like exactly what it was – a short story stretched into a three hour film. That kind of pacing can work for me, in some contexts, but the tone here also encapsulated everything I have come to find suspect about Haruki Murakami’s worldview. It’s somehow sombre and twee at the same time, a self-serious, heavy-handed and endlessly expository exercise in “slow cinema” about a series of manic pixie dream girl muses who are slowed down to a mind-numbing pace. In fact, so still and slow is Drive My Car that it often feels like Hamaguchi is trying to distill the essence of Murakami through sheer glaciation, resulting in a film that feels strangely out of time, more attuned to an older kind of generic arthouse cinema – slow for the sake of slowness, priding itself on being a feat of endurance, since there’s no reason why any adaptation of a short story needs to be this long. In the process, Hamaguchi inadvertently reveals just how different short stories and feature length films are as mediums, which isn’t to say that you can’t adapt a short story brilliantly – Chang-Lee Dong’s Burning is a case in point, and a counterpoint to everything that Hamaguchi offers up here – but that what might seem elliptical or evocative in a mere couple of pages quickly grows contrived in three hours.
On top of all that, Drive My Car is turgidly “writerly” and “literary,” oneirically obsessed with its own verbosity – or the verbosity of its silences, which amounts to the same thing. At heart, it’s a grief narrative, about a couple who respond in different but also similar ways to the loss of their daughter. Yūsuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, quits his work in television, and returns to the theatre, where he quickly garners significant acclaim. Oto, his wife, played by Reika Kirishima, quits acting, and starts telling stories to Yūsuke to cope with the loss, typically during or after sex. The film opens with one of these stories, as Oto outlines an interminable tale while Yūsuke is inside her, setting the stage for the endless monologues to come. The catch is that Oto nearly always forgets the stories she’s told during sex, meaning that Yūsuke has to translate them back to her the next morning: “She’d grasp the thread of a story from the edge of orgasm and then spin it.” You couldn’t picture a more sentimental or sententious vision of authorship, or a more noxious vision of gendered labour either – the man instantly catapults from grief back into critical acclaim, while the woman can only be inspired by sex with her man, but still needs him to translate her work back to her afterwards.
Worse, these stories are uniformly tedious, expository and heavy-handed, laden with “meaningful” and “symbolic” moments that quickly cease to ramify when they’re piled on so thickly. As if this weren’t a self-serving enough vision of authorship for Murakami and Hamaguchi, it becomes inebriated with self-pity when Yūsuke discovers that Oto has been cheating on him – not simply by having sex with other men, but by telling stories to other men, and so robbing him of the prerogative to translate or authorsplain her narratives back to her. When Oto abruptly dies on the very morning she planned to talk to Yūsuke about these shared stories, it prompts a full-blown crisis of masculinity – and of authorship – that manifests itself first and foremost around driving. The one thing that Yūsuke could never stand about Oto was her driving, and her encroachment into this traditionally male domain, which becomes yet another cipher for authorship as the film proceeds. Moreover, Yūsuke is diagnosed with a glaucoma, which means that at some point in the future he may have to stop driving. Finally, when he arrives to direct an experimental production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima – the main plot point of the film – he is dismayed to discover that he is not permitted to drive his own car, due to an incident with an author a couple of years before. Yūsuke had requested a house an hour away from the theatre to enjoy the roads, but instead finds himself assigned a younger female driver – Misaki Watari, played by Tōko Miura.
In its own way, then, Drive My Car is a road movie – and to its credit, it has a fairly decent sense of space, at least initially. Hamaguchi evokes Hiroshima as a crisply streamlined modernist city, and the sheer beauty of the cityscape often works as a distraction from the heavy-handed conversations playing out as Yūsuke and Misaki traverse it. The fluid motion of the camera mirrors the curving elegance of the car, a point of pride for Misaki, who perfected the art of smooth driving as a teenager, when she had to ferry her mother to and from a local railway station without waking her. At times, this is like watching long scenes set in a Yasujirō Ozu pillow shot, although the less flattering perspective is that this is like watching Ozu with only the pillow shots, and without any of his consummate gift for speech and narrative. After all, there’s only so much that great establishing shots can do, while this initial taste for space only makes the flatness more frustrating. In any case, Drive My Car grows less interested in the outside world as it goes on, since there’s remarkably little about the daily drive to and from Yūsuke’s accommodation, nestled on a remote island, nor much of an effort to turn the car into a topography of its own either. So dissonant do these early shots of the cityscape become with the shift to continuous monologue that I wondered whether they were filmed by an assistant director with a vision of roadside Japan that turns out to be utterly unfulfilled.
Of course, all that might be worthwhile if the screenplay was engaging, but this also has to be one of the most tedious and turgid scripts I have seen in years. I never thought I could crave dialogue so much as in this three hour film, where there is endless talking, but no real conversation. This is partly the point, since once Yūsuke’s dialogue with Oto is foreclosed, on the day of her death, he’s unable to engage with anyone until he processes his grief. While that works in theory, in practice it produces two lazy placeholders for dialogue, both of them equally boring. The first are “allegorical” stories that go on and on and on, as the characters explicitly explain their personalities and motivations ad nauseum. For all their cute conceits these stories are the laziest kind of exposition, like a lecture in serious cinema, delivered by people who are so blank, and such overt placeholders for the film’s oneiric tribute to its own “power of narrative,” that I simply couldn’t feel any interest in the overall healing narrative.
The second of these dialogue-substitutes are endless quotations from Uncle Vanya. They start with Yūsuke listening to a tape of Oto reading out the female parts in the car, to help him learn his lines (again, the same need to reduce her to an inert muse) but quickly balloon into an endless series of auditions and rehearsals. Beyond a certain point, these are just decontextualized chunks from Chekhov’s play, and it’s not long before their clunky “resonances” with Yūsuke’s own life get repetitive and gimmicky, culminating with the line “don’t drive me away,” which is almost rendered with an eyebrow up to the audience. The theatre-life crossover here reminded me a bit of Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, but it’s far less evocative or accomplished, with the exception of an actor who performs her part of the play in Korean sign language. Directly translating Chekhov’s script into the motions of her body, she momentarily embodies the intensely mindful cinema that Hamaguchi seems to be striving for. But for the most part, Yūsuke’s staging of Uncle Vanya, and the film’s vision of it, is not very interesting or innovative; it’s just there to hammer home the message of the story. It’s pretty weak when you have to rely so heavily on a classic play for pathos, but Hamaguchi (or perhaps Murakami) goes a step further here, not only leaching off Chekhov’s vision, but dispersing the intensity and economy of the play until it’s as blandly bloated as the film itself.
All of this means that Drive My Car is best when it’s silent, but the film goes in the opposite direction, and spends most of its third hour devolving into a series of increasingly overblown monologues. Even these aren’t effectively modulated on their own terms, typically consisting of repeated chunks of words, all of a similar length, delivered in a similar way, over and over again. In the end, these ceaseless chunks of speech are the reason the film is so long, in a sententious manifesto for slow cinema that doesn’t even subsist on silence, but on unedited talking. So obsessed does Hamaguchi seem to be with making everything “resonate” in these last monologues that the interminable pauses between words reach a cacophonous pitch – and, to me, didn’t resonate at all. I can understand why this might have played well with critics, but to me it was bad-faith cinema, a refusal of cinematic pleasure in the name of one of the most self-serious and simultaneously twee premises I’ve seen, and the worst of 2022.
Finally. Thank you. So many reviews I have read that love this film. I have been waiting for a bad review to turn up. I tried really hard to like it but couldn’t relate at all. Found it pretentious to the point of idiocy. Same with another film of his, Happy Hour, also insanely pretentious, boring, long, and much admired. As a devoted lover of classic Japanese movies I was excited to see these and expected to like them. Big mistake.
Glad you singled out Burning for a mention too. I loved it , saw it twice, liked it better than Parasite.
Thanks for the comment – and good to hear I’m not alone!