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Review: In ‘Drive My Car,’ Ryûsuke Hamaguchi delivers a haunting masterpiece of art and life

Two people in a car.
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura in the movie “Drive My Car.”
(The Match Factory)
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At the simplest of its many intricate levels, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is a masterpiece — haunting and true, melancholy and wise — inspired by another. It follows a middle-age actor and director, Yûsuke Kafuku (a superb Hidetoshi Nishijima), who specializes in experimental multilingual theater productions, the latest of which is “Uncle Vanya.” The play’s still the thing, but you’ve never seen or heard Chekhov quite like this, in a Babel-esque collision of tongues including Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Korean sign language. It presents an unusual challenge for Kafuku’s actors, who must draw on all their expressive powers to achieve an eloquence that transcends words.

They more than rise to that occasion — and so, with shimmering elegance and lucidity, does “Drive My Car.” On the one hand, Hamaguchi and his co-writer, Takamasa Oe, are clearly enamored of words: There are a lot of them in this nearly three-hour movie, adapted and significantly elaborated from a 2014 short story by Haruki Murakami. (The movie, which will represent Japan in the Academy Awards race for international feature, won the screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.) But the filmmakers also harbor a certain skepticism about words, with their capacity for imprecision, evasion and outright fabrication. This is a movie that understands how seldom people really know or understand each other even when they are speaking the same language.

That uncertainty creeps into the seductive, hypnotic opening sequence, which finds Kafuku and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), lost in a post-coital haze. Silhouetted against the dusky Tokyo light outside their window, Oto begins to tell Kafuku a story, involving a teenage girl and a secret intrusion, that has just come to her in the midst of their lovemaking. You sense that this storytelling is a ritual for them, that sex is a source of creative inspiration as well as pleasure. (Kafuku is a theater star, Oto an acclaimed screenwriter.) You also feel the sadness that hangs over them, signaled by the somber cast of Eiko Ishibashi’s score and the dark, enveloping shadows of Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography.

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Perfectly paced, intricately structured and entirely absorbing, “Drive My Car” is a movie about love and grief, full of winding journeys and unplanned connections. It’s also a story about storytelling, in which art and life don’t imitate so much as embrace each other, becoming intimate, ultimately indistinguishable bedfellows. Both Kafuku and Oto have turned to art to assuage the pain of profound loss, though Hamaguchi is in no hurry to reveal the nature of that loss or the unique toll it’s taken on their marriage of roughly two decades. Instead, he drops clues — and contradictions — that pull us ever deeper into his story.

A desk lamp illuminates a man and a pile of books.
Hidetoshi Nishijima in the movie “Drive My Car.”
(Sideshow / Janus Films)

Kafuku is methodical and soft-spoken, a creature of habit: Driving his red Saab 900 each day around Tokyo, he rehearses his lines by listening to audiotapes that Oto has made for him. The contrapuntal interplay of their voices, his memorized lines filling in the silences between her recorded ones, beautifully sums up their mutual devotion. But then Kafuku returns home early one day and spies something that radically reshapes what he understood about Oto and their marriage — or does it merely confirm what he already suspected? In a different movie, the answer would become clear in an eruption of melodramatic fireworks; instead, Kafuku slips out unnoticed and doesn’t tell Oto what he’s seen — not using words, anyway. (Watch his body language and you’ll see the precise moment when he discloses the truth.)

Hamaguchi isn’t being deliberately slow or obscure. He’s examining the contours of a marriage that, as with every marriage, only its participants can ever truly understand. Scene by scene, there’s more going on in any five minutes of “Drive My Car” than in some movies in their entirety; it just happens to unfold, like real life, at a more serene clip and a lower volume. Meaning coalesces not only through reams of dialogue but also through expressive glances, reverberant silences and many atmospheric shots of Kafuku’s car rolling down roads and highways. During those drives, he keeps listening to Oto’s voice — and suddenly, that voice is all he has left of her, as tragedy strikes and compounds his devastation.

Two years pass, and this, you might say, is where “Drive My Car” well and truly begins. Still quietly picking up the pieces of his life, Kafuku agrees to serve as artist-in-residence at a Hiroshima theater festival, where he will oversee that multilingual production of “Uncle Vanya.” It’s a play that holds particular significance for him, though Chekhov’s fragile, self-deluded hero — an emblem of romantic frustration — is a role to which he can no longer fully surrender himself. Instead, he chooses to direct, a position that grants him the satisfaction of mentoring other actors as well as the illusion of control.

But Kafuku is denied control in one crucial respect. Because of safety regulations, the festival has assigned him a personal driver, a 23-year-old woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura, quietly spellbinding), to chauffeur him to and from his hotel. While Kafuku initially resents this intrusion, as his Saab has become a personal shrine and a creative workspace, he reluctantly turns over the keys to Misaki. Gradually, a bond of trust forms between them as they drive along the Hiroshima coast, Kafuku listening to Oto’s tapes while Misaki maintains a respectful silence. She’s a sensitive companion and, unsurprisingly, an excellent driver, with a particular gift for imperceptibly speeding up, slowing down and weaving in and out of traffic.

Two people at a bar, one with a drink.
Masaki Okada and Hidetoshi Nishijima in the movie “Drive My Car.”
(Sideshow / Janus Films)

“Drive My Car” moves with the same stealthy grace. It’s composed from maybe a thousand banal details — schedules and appointments, arrivals and departures — and yet it glides by like a dream. It’s full of playful coincidences and memorable characters, including a mute actor, Yoon-A (a superb Park Yoo-rim), whose interactions with Kafuku strike their own gorgeous grace notes. It’s a seamless work, but crucially, it isn’t airbrushed or sanitized. Hamaguchi builds and sustains extraordinary tension, especially when Kafuku finds a surprising role in his production for Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a hotshot young actor with whom both he and Oto have some unacknowledged emotional history.

Once again, having set the stage for something explosive, Hamaguchi chooses a less predictable route. It’s the characters’ restraint, their instinctive avoidance of confrontation, that makes the human stakes so wrenching. Takatsuki struggles to suppress his youthful callowness and self-destructive temper, and in Okada’s sensitive performance, we see an alarming vision of another encroaching tragedy. By contrast, Nishijima is impeccably controlled, and all the more heartbreaking for his restraint. He makes you feel Kafuku’s anger and resentment, but they are matched — and possibly eclipsed — by his curiosity. We can never be sure if Kafuku is playing an elaborate mind game with Takatsuki — or if, more heartbreaking still, he’s trying to extract some hidden truth about the woman he loved but never fully knew.

In one extraordinary scene, Misaki drives both Kafuku and Takatsuki down a highway at night, and a space that was once a private shrine suddenly takes on the hushed quality of a confessional. (It’s not a tearjerker, but it is a Saab story.) The role Misaki plays here is crucial, and Miura remarkably conceals many layers within her coolly watchful stare. It may not surprise you to learn that Misaki is guarding some painful secrets of her own, or that she and Kafuku will gradually tease out each other’s respective traumas. But inevitable as that may seem on paper, nothing about “Drive My Car” feels obvious. As in his astonishing run of recent movies — they include “Happy Hour,” “Asako I & II” and this year’s luminous “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” — Hamaguchi delights in taking seemingly familiar narrative arcs and turning them over and over, yielding brilliant new emotional configurations each time.

“Drive My Car” is about the gift of unexpected friendship, one that Kafuku and Misaki have to learn to give each other. But really, it’s about so many things that by the time it nears the three-hour mark, you might find yourself in awe of Hamaguchi’s economy. It’s about how acting can achieve the force of real life, and how real life requires a measure of acting. It’s about the scalding, clarifying power of Chekhov (“When you say his lines,” Kafuku says, “it drags out the real you”) and also the strange, eerie compassion of Murakami, two authors whose particular sensibilities — and their specific insights into men’s longing for women — are harmoniously united here. Most of all, it’s about the elusive magic that still sometimes transpires between actors, the kind that can turn words on a page into a work of art and a moving vehicle into a space as cathartic as the theater itself.

‘Drive My Car’

(In Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Korean sign language and English with English subtitles)

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 3 at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles


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