Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 09, 2022 9:26 am 
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Hamaguchi garners more international attention with the second feature in one year, this one about a theater director, his fraught relationships, and an unusual production of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya'

Ryunsuke Hamaguchi is gathering accolades with his films now and this one, with the Best Screenplay at Cannes and other awards and inclusion in many prestigious international festivals, is even more admired than his other 2021 feature, the charming three-part romantic tale anthology Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Drive My Car, like Lee Chang-dong's 2018 Burning, is an unusually fascinating adaptation and expansion of a Haruki Murakami short story, It's literary, it's complex, it's thought-provoking. The only troubles are it's awfully long and unfun. It's better in the pondering than in the watching.

Hamaguchi likes to play around with form. This time his three-hour film has a 'prologue' that lasts over 40 minutes and is more exciting than the rest of the film. It provides sex, fantasy, intrigue, and three stunning surprises. The long later section is a lot of play line reading and a lot of driving around: a lot of dull repetition.

The director is Yusuke Kafuku (the excellent Hidetoshi Nishijima), appearing in his own Japanese-language production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot as the action begins, and noted for his unusual preparing method, and for Uncle Vanya. He's also known for his celebrity wife, a beautiful producer of TV dramas called Oto (Reika Kirishima). Oto has an unusual method too: she develops drama material by improvising stories during and after their sex. During the prologue we see several extended scenes of the latter. An interesting, perfect, power couple, Yusuke and Oto.

Only they don't have the skill of being able to talk things out. I wasn't sure whether Oto was deeply loyal to Yusuke in her fashion, or bored to death but unwilling to admit it. The happy couple maybe isn't so happy. Oto is a serial adulterer, sleeping with many men, probably. When he returns unannounced after a cancelled flight Yusuke spies Oto in flagrante with Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the tall, handsome young star of her TV series. Koji is to be a major character, though he may seem more a MacGuffin than a person.

There are several jolts besides Yusuke's discovery of Oto's affair with Koji, which he deals with in a silent, non-confrontational way, turning around unseen and going to a hotel to await his postponed flight. He has a sudden car accident on the freeway, colliding almost balletically with another vehicle; we see the two cars from high above like lego pieces. This introduces a symbolic ailment. The medical exam reveals he has a blind spot, not noticed due to the eyes' and mind's compensations, caused by approaching glaucoma in one eye. This also introduces us to my favorite 'character', Yusuke's lovingly preserved bright red Eighties Saab 9000 Turbo. Then, just when Oto was going to perhaps explain things, Yusuke comes home to discover her lying dead on the floor from a cerebral hemorrhage.

The prologue has provided all this lively material, including an introduction to Koji in another context and closeups of the Saab. Now it is two years later and the bereaved Yusuke is going to direct an unusual multicultural production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. The film and Murakami's story celebrate the virtues of automobile driving as a place to meditate, to learn, and to get to know someone. Yusuke listens to a tape of Uncle Vanya where Oto has read all the other parts and he fills in Vanya. He stays at a hotel an hour from the theater to work on this. But the festival rules stipulate that he must have a driver of his own car because an artist ran over someone. So he gets Misaki (Toko Miura), a surly, withdrawn 23-year-old woman of somewhat shabby appearance. After balking, Yusuke gives in, and the movie's mutedly sentimental 'romance' begins as the two lonely, traumatized people gradually come together on those many hour drives. Yusuke doesn't intend to play Vanya because he thinks he can't handle any more how it brings out the heart of you, but he is forced to. This is all about looking into yourself and confronting pain. The tragedy of Oto and Yuusuke grows when we learn they lost a 4-year-old girl twenty years ago who died of pneumonia. And Misaki reveals a painful childhood of abuse ending in tragedy. Her remedies of smoking a lot and being an excellent driver aren't quite enough.

I've delayed coming to the production of Uncle Vanya, because it doesn't seem to me as wonderful and revelatory as others find but simply strange and off-putting. It's multi-cultural in the extreme, with Japanese, Chinese and Korean actors speaking multiple languages, including sign language. Yusuke, provided with a stage manager and an interpreter, makes the cast, who can't understand each other as they read their parts in different languages, go over and over it expressionlessly, with the interpreter translating the lines. The idea is for them to know the play so well they can 'hear' all the parts even though half the time they don't understand the individual speakers.

For the final theater audience during the short run-time following the long rehearsal period, the result might leave one pretty cold. Audience members can only make sense of the dialogue through translations projected in Japanese and English high above the stage, as in some opera productions. A roar of applause follows Sonya's final long speech given in Korean sign language. But, really? All this is extrapolation built on a mere hint in Murakami's story. It allows Hamaguchi to introduce a lot of telling lines about sorrow, faithfulness, loss and resentment, some of which Yusuke must enjoy mouthing in the safety of his classic red Saab. His interest is in the rehearsals and the car rides, not the final production.

The Koji subplot is intriguing and one place where the huge part two of this film is still fun, and provides some schadenfreude since the young hothead gets his cumuppance. He has lost his starring TV role and is in disgrace over a sex abuse scandal but Yusuke pointedly and oddly chooses him to play Vanya. The two men repeatedly connect after rehearsals, Yosuke trying to learn more about Oto's secret life; but Koji has a tendency to attack celebrity-chasers who snap his photo, which leads him into deep trouble - and forces Yusuke to take on the role of Vanya himself, after all.

All this is fascinating, if long and slow in the watching, but there is a lot in Drive My Car that is a bit too pointed, like the blind spot discovered through the car accident, the assigned driver leading to the relationship, the choice of the inappropriate actor leading to Yusuke's taking on the role of Vanya after all, and the many long explanatory monologues. Hamaguchi always has long monologues, but they work better when they come in an engaging context. This oddball Uncle Vanya production is just a concept too high. Even the red Saab 9000 Turbo starts to seem more concept than car.

I agree with Stephen Dalton who in his Cannes Hollywood Reporter review wrote that this "highbrow road movie" is "an absorbing, technically assured piece of work" with "poetic depths and novelistic ambitions," but also a film that's "very slow and ponderous, motoring along in low gear for much of its three-hour runtime, with a "lethargic pace" that's "underscored" by having its "subtle opening credits" not turn up till after the opening forty minutes. Hamaguchi's cavalier attitude toward form never seems to lead to economy, wit, or emotional pungency. All of his films since he started gaining international fame with the five-hour Happy Hour have been intriguing and attention-getting, but also in some measure disappointing.

Drive My Car ドライブ・マイ・カ, 179 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes Jul. 11, 2021 (Best Screenplay and two other awards), showing at over 30 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, London, Vancouver, the Hamptons, Vienna and Rotterdam. It is one of the fifteen 2022 Oscar Best Foreign finalists. US theatrical release from Nov. 24, 2021. Metacritic rating: 90%. Screened at Landmark Shattuck Jan. 8, 2021.

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