I’ll admit I didn’t get through Drive My Car in one sitting. It’s a long, slow-burn movie, and you have to really pay attention to the subtitles. Can’t sit on the computer surfing while you’re watching this one.
Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yûsuke Kafaku, a theater director who is still coping with his wife’s death and her previous transgressions two years later. Yûsuke is given the opportunity to direct the Chekov play “Uncle Vanya” in the nearby city of Hiroshima. As a result of an accident, he can no longer drive himself, so the producers hire a young driver named Misaki (Tôko Miura) to transport him.
Misaki is initially sort of emotionless, just going through the act of performing her job. She kind of stares beyond the wheel, observant but lost. Haunted by hidden grief and regrets, the two begin to share their struggles. The car becomes an intimate confessional as they spend more time together.
Storytelling is more than just a theme here. It’s a way of delivering gut punching revelations. And, more importantly, recognizing the role of the listener in receiving the story. There are several ways this challenge is presented from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. We’re listening to the sound of Yûsuke’s wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) as she tells her stories both in person and on tape. The actors in the play Yûsuke is directing, they’re interpreting Chekov. Misaki is listening to Yûsuke share about his wife. It’s the response that is important – it’s our participation in what it means to us.
When Yûsuke allows his wife’s lover into the play, and ultimately into his car, the pain is obvious. He’s attempting to control what’s surging inside of him. To find out more, to elevate the belief he allowed this to happen. Realizing there are parts of his wife unknown to him, but known to someone else. Rather than lash out, Yûsuke listens carefully as he is cautioned, ‘No matter how much we think we know someone – there is a part of their heart that we should never see, because it would hurt us.’ That got me.
Deeply destroyed by his wife and their combined loss, Yûsuke continues to struggle because he never told her how he felt. He didn’t trust his own emotions and feared it would tear them apart. He believes he lost her because he chose to ignore it. Now he sees this, feels this. Regret. Pain. Anger. Confession. Yielding to his feelings as he has trained his actors to yield to the text of Chekov’s play. To allow oneself to be true to what is in your heart.
In the final scene we see Misaki at a grocery store, seemingly in the midst of a global pandemic. I think it’s the first time we see her sort of smile. A happy dog companion accompanies her as she drives off in Yûsuke’s car. It’s clear that loss still surrounds her. But her smile shows she is letting go and allowing feelings, making a choice that she must choose to live.
I think this will win Best International Feature.