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Drive My Car review – ambitious and deeply moving Murakami adaptation

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi delivers his best film yet with this self-consciously epic, three-hour tale about a director and his driver

As a new day dawns, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) hops into his shiny red car and drives along the highway to his next destination. As syrupy music plays and the opening credits roll, Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi sets us up for another one of his trademark dramas of mysterious self-discovery. There’s just one problem: we’re already 40 minutes into Drive My Car's three-hour runtime.

Hamaguchi knows how to surprise his audience, something that his Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which premiered at Berlin just nine months ago, certainly proved. There, the three stories that all hinged on a major plot twist seemed to set some new bar for screenwriting. In Drive My Car’s extended prologue, Hamaguchi charts the breakdown of Yūsuke’s marriage to his playwright wife (Reika Kirishima). Almost entirely a two-hander, it establishes the film’s reliance on monologue and storytelling to reveal character. When the marriage ends once and for all, the director seems to reset. Cue titles.

Following that drive, the main thrust is thus: freshly alone in the world and visibly struggling to cope, Yūsuke takes a residency at a remote theatre festival, where he will stage Uncle Vanya. But… complication! The festival directors insist that he not drive himself around, saddling him with Misaki (Tôko Miura). He is angry: part of his process has always been to learn his lines while driving, listening to the other characters on a tape. But slowly, the pair glimpse each other’s souls, and their pasts begin to come to light.

If this sounds a little Green Book, the similarities are only surface level. The tight, almost Buñuelian recurrences and storytelling games of Hamaguchi's earlier films are swapped out for clean psychological veracity, and all of the contradictions that go with it. Drive My Car is grand, ambitious, self-consciously a masterpiece. This creates challenges for the audience: being asked to draw parallels between the characters and figures from Chekov, for example. But Hamaguchi isn’t intellectually distant. He delivers the satisfying beats of a Hollywood weepy, just not necessarily in the order you would expect.

As individually overwhelming as many of the long, cathartic scenes are, the group therapy dynamic – and the film's emotional register – can end up feeling like Ted Lasso-core sentimentality. But then Hamaguchi will drop a simple yet powerful image, like two cigarette-holding hands poking through a sunroof, and the effect is undeniable. Viewers familiar with the director’s usual use of brightly lit digital photography will be impressed by the expansive visual range here. With a remarkable shiny hue, the film glows.

Drive My Car is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, who was also recently – and freely – adapted by Lee Chang-dong for 2018’s Burning. Murakami’s clipped voice and convincing melodrama proves to be wonderful fodder for any filmmaker wanting to make a big statement. Hamaguchi’s life-lessons are moving, but it’s even more impressive that the filmmaker is able to pull off film after film of increasing quality. If anyone was in doubt, Hamaguchi has arrived, and long may his drive through the emotional forestry of humankind continue.

Drive My Car was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 19 November.

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