Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s new opus “Drive My Car,” one of just two Asian titles competing for the Palme d’Or this year at the Cannes Film Festival, consists of three melancholy hours of conversations, but it says the most in its moments of silence.
In an interview ahead of the film’s debut on the Croisette, Hamaguchi notes that his past works have often been described as “really chatty” due to their numerous long, meandering exchanges. Here, in his largest-scale production to date, it’s the unspoken subtext that steals the show.
“A big theme of mine is really about how communication doesn’t necessarily arise only because there are words,” he says. “I think a lot about how I can effectively use silences in my films, because to me, silence doesn’t necessarily mean two people are not communicating or have no relationship.”
“Drive My Car” is an adaptation of a Murakami Haruki short story of the same name, but uses its source material more as a starting point than a blueprint, adding rich backstories and original characters.
It tells the story of Yusuke Kafuku, a respected theater director and actor trying to stage a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” as he tries to grapple with the death of his beloved but unfaithful wife, having cast her lover in the titular role.
Hamaguchi first began developing the project back in 2018 after the release of “Asako I & II,” his last film in competition at Cannes. Producer Yamamoto Teruhisa had approached him with the idea of adapting a Murakami novel, but he declined, fearing that the writer’s signature habit of slipping seamlessly between fantasy and realism would be a challenge. The short story “Drive My Car,” grounded entirely in the real world, felt like a better fit.
The director began location scouting in 2019 while shooting his anthology film “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which premiered just three months ago at Berlin, winning the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. While the pandemic didn’t derail the smaller-scale, more contained “Wheel,” it delayed shooting for “Drive My Car” by eight months. Production had begun in March of 2020, just as COVID-19 really hit Japan.
To create the co-written script, Hamaguchi read and re-read Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and Murakami’s text, pulling lines and elements from each that struck him as being in dialog with each other and the life of his main character.
“I feel that this idea of one thing reflecting something else is key to Murakami’s style. Often, especially in his longer novels, there are two parallel worlds that reflect each other, with one enhancing our understanding of the other, and vice versa,” he said.
The same dynamic exists between Chekhov’s play and “Drive My Car,” he added: “Both of these works deepen our understanding of the other by the reflections they create.”
There are interesting parallels, too, between Hamaguchi and the fictional director that he’s spun.
In the film, Kafuku requires his actors to spend weeks delivering their lines over and over with as little emotion as possible, harkening back to an older, more traditional style of Japanese theater direction that seeks to avoid over-explanation.
Hamaguchi himself uses similar methods, asking actors to do readings over and over while stripping all emotion from the words.
“I think about what kinds of excesses I can take away from the film, so that it can have the most concentrated atmosphere and performances,” he said. To strip things down, however, the helmer felt it necessary to stretch them out.
“Drive My Car” begins with an immensely long prologue that feels like a film unto itself. It delves into the tragedies of Kafuku’s past and the complexities of his marriage — and bumps up the runtime to the three-hour mark.
“In a novel, you’re able to conveniently drop into people’s internal mind-frames, but it’s harder to express the same sort of thing in film, especially when the character has a shyness about them or rarely speaks,” Hamaguchi explains. “I really needed to show that this character is carrying an enormous sadness within him; I needed the audience to really understand those feelings and his reactions.”
Armed with that knowledge, even the slightest flicker of his expression can feel as dramatic as a paroxysm.
For Hamaguchi, however, no character embodies his interest in the eloquence of wordlessness better than the character Lee Yoon-a, a mute actress that Kafuku selects to star in his play. Through sign language and an almost seraphic beatitude, she delivers some of the film’s most moving moments.
On stage with her arms around Kafuku, beaten down by his own widower’s grief and his character Vanya’s misanthropy, she signs her last Chekhov monologue, expressing a sense of hope and healing that no other character can. She consoles him voicelessly in the pin-drop silence of the theater: “You have never known happiness, but wait! We shall rest.”