Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest film Drive My Car doesn’t provide any answers to the intriguing questions it poses. It just leaves them lying around for us to pick up and wonder.
Raise your hands, those who immediately thought of the classic Beatles song when they heard the name of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest film, ‘Drive My Car’. This is not the first time Haruki Murakami has borrowed a famous Beatles song for a title: remember ‘Norwegian Wood’? This time around, the essence of the song — ‘baby you can drive my car, and maybe I’ll love you’ — seeps into Hamaguchi’s almost three-hour film, a perfect amalgamation of mood and meditation.
Those who hate anyone else touching their car will understand the reluctance expressed by well-known actor and theatre director Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) when he arrives as an honoured guest at a Hiroshima residency. But the moment Misaki (Toko Miura) slides behind the wheel and takes off, with him in the backseat, he not only relaxes, he forgets he is in a car. So smooth is the young woman, and so unobtrusive is her presence that Yusuke could well be on his own, which is what he prefers because he likes untrammelled time to rehearse his lines out loud during long drives.
The growing contours of this unusual relationship between these two strangers, which deepens into something strangely beautiful as they reveal their stories to each other is very Hamaguchi (his last film, ‘Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune’ was one of the best films at this year’s Berlinale). When he reaches Nagasaki, Yusuke is shown trying to put behind him the death of his gorgeous wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a successful playwright with unusual proclivities. Her creativity’s ebbed and flowed from their sexual highs; she would often get new ideas coming off great climaxes and share them with her husband. One day, he sees Oto in the throes with a younger man, and his retreat – he doesn’t bring it up, nor does he confront her — tells us something. Was Oto a serial offender which Yusuke was aware of, and was this latest lover just another in a long string?
At the residency, when he comes face to face with the same young man, celebrity actor Koji (Masaki Okada), he responds by handing him (Koji) the part of a much older man. He is to play the elderly ‘Uncle Vanya’ in the Anton Chekov play. The unease between the two men is evident, and the spikiness with which they exchange words makes it clear that both are aware of the Oto connection. That it wasn’t just a physical conquest for the younger man, that he had deep feelings for Oto, comes as a surprise both to the husband, and to us: maybe, in their long marriage, he never really did get to understand her? And maybe, in the short time Koji and Oto were together, he got her the way Yusuke never did?
‘Drive My Car’ doesn’t provide any answers to these intriguing questions, just leaves them lying around for us to pick up and wonder. The reason behind Misaki’s immaculate driving is made clear, and we get to know why she is so reticent, and why she has that scar on her face. We see the scar on her soul much later. Hamaguchi, amongst the most interesting young auteurs working in Japan currently, is a dab hand at peeling off layers. He knows that we don’t immediately reveal ourselves, not just to others, but to ourselves. And that journey can take a lifetime.
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