'Drive My Car' Review: A powerful treatise on love, betrayal, solitude, longing, and grief

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

The 92nd Academy Awards would always be remembered for the unprecedented success of a non-English language film. Noted South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s comedy-thriller Parasite created history by winning the Oscars for Best International Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It was the first time that a non-English language film had won the Oscar for Best Picture. Also, it was the first time that a winner of Best International Feature Film (earlier known as Best Foreign Language Film) went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In other words, Bong Joon-ho’s film single-handedly changed the rules of the game. It all started with the Palme d’Or win at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the film never looked back. This year at the 94th Academy Awards we can have a similar outcome with another non-English language film, Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s drama film Drive My Car, competing in four categories viz. Best International Feature Film, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.

Now, the all important question is whether Drive My Car will succeed in repeating the magic of Parasite at the Oscars? Well, it is important to understand that before Parasite’s triumph it was considered a bit outlandish for a foreign-language film to get a Best Picture nomination. By no means it was impossible, but now it’s looking more and more believable for a non-English language film. What seems to work in Drive My Car’s favor is that it has suddenly emerged as a critics’ favorite, winning the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle as well as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association while also getting honored by the National Society for Film Critics.

It’s worth mentioning that these three critic groups very rarely rally around a single film and Drive My Car is only the sixth movie in history to do so—the other five being Goodfellas, Schindler’s List, L.A. Confidential, The Hurt Locker, and The Social Network. Clearly, the film is in great company but still this doesn’t guarantee anything. However, one thing is certain: everyone will have their eyes on how Drive My Car fares on the awards night. And if it does succeed in winning more than one Oscar (right now it seems to be a very strong contender for Best International Feature Film) then Parasite’s triumph would not have a remained a one off thing and also it would have made sure that the Academy Awards didn’t feel so local anymore.

What makes Drive My Car a very unusual non-English language Oscar nominee is the fact that it lacks the thrill and excitement of a film like Parasite or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Drive My Car is essentially a film about the social need of human beings to connect with one another. It is also about love, betrayal, solitude, longing, and grief. And about why art matters in our lives. It is primarily based on Haruki Murakami's short story of the same name from his 2014 collection Men Without Women. The screenplay is co-written by Takamasa Oe and Hamaguchi himself. When the film premiered at e 2021 Cannes Film Festival, it bagged as many as three awards, including Best Screenplay.

The film follows a famous stage actor and director who must grapple with the challenge of directing a multilingual production (with a mix of Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog, and Korean Sign Language) of Anton Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima following his beloved wife's unexpected death. What makes the bereavement even more difficult for him is the fact that even though he was aware that his wife cheated on him with a younger man he could never really confront her while she was alive. What complicates the things even more is that he deliberately casts the same young man in the role of Uncle Vanya. The extended sequences with actors rehearsing for the play may at first look a little redundant but slowly they tend to grow on you. Equally meditative are the scenic car rides with the protagonist listening to a cassette of his dead wife reciting lines from Uncle Vanya.

Drive My Car is the first ever Best Picture nominee from Japan. Also, its four nominations ties it with Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 magnum opus Ran as the most nominated Japanese film in Oscars history. Regardless of whether the film wins big at the 94th Academy Awards or not, there is no denying that the international success of Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy has placed Ryusuke Hamaguchi in a very special league of filmmakers from Japan who have enjoyed success outside of Japan such as Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Ōshima, and, more recently, Hirokazu Koreeda.

Drive My Car will be available to stream exclusively on MUBI in India from April 1.   

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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