Drive My Car

Drive My Car (Doraibu mai ), a Japanese language (subtitled) psychological mystery film directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi and written with Takamasa Oe, and based on a short story of this name in a collection called Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami, will create controversy among people who teach screenwriting, especially online. For example, Tyler Mowery (through his Practical Screenwriting Facebook group and course) has been advocating relatively straightforward storytelling through direct application of the Harmon story circle, and by interplaying philosophical beliefs derived from the characters (rather than from abstract moral concepts) with the characters gains and losses balancing out as the steps in a story circle are followed. Usually this is accomplished much more readily in relatively contained settings where the characters have to deal with one another directly, and where the changes in characters' well-being and beliefs are sizable and directly generated by the events. It's these simpler, almost monaural setups where students are expected to learn to write scripts that work. (Students may be asked to learn to be comfortable with switching heroes and villains ('flip the premise', which my moralistic self is not.) Before I go further beyond today's YouTube stars, I'll mention that the short story collection title sounds like something Tim Pool will inevitably take up on his IRL show, or maybe a 'Cast Castle' (Maryland) episode. (Oh, it that weren't enough, YouTube star Andrew Neighbors is building a 'cast castle west' near Seattle.)

So of course, this film, nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (not common with foreign language films, just 'Paradise') and it is a three-hour corker. It isn't showing at that many places. I did DC's unfortunately compromised Metro to get to Landmark E Street downtown, where we had to show vaccination card (I have all three shots) and picture ID to get in (DC law). The theater is still reeling from the sudden Covid shutdown in March 2020. Audience is still not the fun it used to be. But the staff knows this movie, above all others, is controversial, artistically, for the whole idea of film itself.

The film was important prospectively to me because of my own script 'Second Epiphany' which I already registered. In that script, various characters are assembled to go on an Earth evacuation rescue (yup, 'Don't Look Up') but have to be selected, so one character (me) has the 'power' to process all the others through his (or 'my') own backstories. So you get a collection of intersecting story circles that accumulate together.

That is the case with this movie, although the consolidation is accomplished without backstories as such. Instead, it starts in the first act was Oto Kafutu (Reika Kirishima) tells her theater actor ('Waiting for Godot') husband Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) her screenplay treatments. They include some wild stuff. But soon some complications start. They've already lost a daughter to pneumonia. He has a minor car crash and learns he has glaucoma and could go blind in one eye. But most of all, Oto sees other men, especially a charismatic and handsome young Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). On at least one occasion Yusuke comes home during her affair with him but she doesn't see him and he keeps his knowledge of the affair secret. Then, in a particularly riveting sequence, he comes home again, admits himself through the high-tech security of their apartment, and finds her unconscious. We learn she has passed away from a burst brain aneurysm.

At this point, 45 minutes after the feature started, the film shows its 'opening credits', as if the film had started over. Yusuke has accepted a position of directing a multi-lingual presentation, in Hiroshima, of Anton Chekhov's 1898 play Uncle Vanya, which is a rewrite of the more complicated 'The Wood Demon' and which implicitly has a lot to do with class and resentment within a family (probably with a taste of the threat of Marxism). Yusuke does auditions of various actors and actresses (one of whom speaks in sign), but most peculiarly Koji shows up for the audition. There is some game playing as to the fact that Koji may not know of Yusuke's knowledge of the previous affair, which will lead to more conflict. Yusuke eventually hires everyone, but Koji has to accept the role of playing a much older man, with makeup which would remove his edgy youthfulness. Some portion of this part of the film is taken up with table readings of Chekhov's play. (We saw the idea of table readings in the film 'Being the Ricardos'. Yes, they used to love to do them at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis when I lived there.)

The other complication is ironic. The theater does not allow artists (especially theater director) to drive their own cars (his is a red Saab, 15 years old). So he has to accept the hiring of a driver, Masaki Okada (Tōko Miura), and accept the idea he will not be alone in the car when he talks to himself while memorizing his lines. That is ironically because of a previous accident (unrelated to Yusuke's), so his karma from his own glaucoma has caught up with him. Masaki is the same age his deceased daughter would have been. Furthermore, she had an estranged relationship with a schizophrenic mother who died in a landslide destroying their home when Masaki could have saved her.

Koji gets tormented by a paparazzi, or maybe just by gawkers taking pictures of him, and kills one of them and is charged with manslaughter. So Yusuke has to either cancel the play, or act the part of Vanya himself. He and Masaki go on a several day auto pilgrimage to the site of her mother's collapsed home, when he decides he can act his age in the play, which goes on. The viewer is left to wonder how much the plot of Chekhov's play infiltrates this film, or perhaps his wife's dictated proposed screenplays from the past, which Koji had remembered.

At the end, Masaki winds up owning the car in modern day South Korea, where people are running around with masks and automatic contact tracing, as Covid19 has menaced them.

See review of Chekhov's Seagull May 28, 2018; Being the Ricardos, Dec 26, 2021, and sign-language in the arts is taken up by 'Coda', previous review Feb. 10.

In 2002 (while still living in Minneapolis), I wrote a script (187 pages) and very detailed treatment for a proposed screenplay 'Make the A-List' tangentially related to my first 'Do Ask Do Tell' book. As with the more recent 'Second Epiphany', there is some similarity to the setup for this movie but in a different sense. The script presupposes, in meta-movie format, that Bill's (my) book is to become a movie and a friend Tobey auditions to act in it. The audition and table reading of a critical scene introduces some of the material (in my own story, like the WM expulsion). But Tobey has also been finishing law school and becomes an attorney and in two separate sequences later becomes involved in litigation against Bill, which further tells the DADT story indirectly in embedded fashion. In other words, the script presents the idea of how playing or even auditioning for a particular movie or drama role could affect the progress of someone's life thereafter (in the script Tobey gets badly injured rescuing people in a bar fire, for example). The script seems intriguing to me even now but one problem is that it is too tied to the world was it was right after 9/11, long before Trumpism, Antifa-ism, and the pandemic.

I've covered 'Adaptation' (2001), by Charlie and Donald Kaufman with Nicholas Cage playing twin screenwriters doing Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief in my own distant past. It was the first movie I went to after I was laid off (with severance and retirement) at the end of 2001.

One more thing. There has been talk (like on the aforementioned FB groups) about Nolanization of movies, of new writers wanting to pile on plot complexity out of concepts in their own heads. This sort of layering needs to come from the characters (and their 'belief' as opposed to outside philosophical 'concepts'. In this film, it comes from the characterss beliefs. But I still am thinking, well, the external script ideas from deceased Oto's brain are rather comparable to dreams in Christopher Nolan's 'Inception', and the characters still drive things in that 2010 classic. But here there is no spinning thimble ready to topple over.

The music score is by Eiko Ishibashi; the Mozart Rondo in D Major, K 485 is in the background when the protagonist sees his wife cheating (without detection);later the Beethoven String Quartet #3 is heard.

Cannes QA:

Name 'Drive My Car'

Director, writer:Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Takamasa Oe; story by Haruki Murakami

Released: 2021

Format: 1.85:1 in Japanese with subtitles

When and how viewed: Landmark R St, 2022/2/11, 4:15 show, fair crowd

Length: 179

Rating: UR, would probably be NC-17 with one or two explicit scenes (that's OK, a real film for adults), otherwise R

Companies: C&I, The Match Factory, Bitters End, Janus Films

Link: Janus, review by Pajiba

Stars: *****

(first Posted: Saturday, February 12, 2022 at 1 PM EST by John W Boushka)