Drive My Car
Bitters End, 2021
📷 : Used with permission, Snollygoster Productions (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Nonfamily dramas with strong socioeconomic themes
Thought-provoking movies and TV shows
If you spent much of the pandemic locked down with the same one or two people, you may have thrown around the term “trauma bonding” more than you ever thought you would. The notion that shared grief can bring individuals closer makes all the sense in the world, and often is necessary for many to push through traumatic events. Many times, our will and inspiration come from an unforeseen presence. Such is the case in director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s critically acclaimed Drive My Car.
Drive My Car breaks convention even within the framework of a familiar setup. After all, we’ve seen the narrative of a troubled protagonist befriending their driver/passenger before, most notably in Driving Miss Daisy. Hamaguchi’s film presents a more personal, familial struggle for each of its co-stars than we’ve seen in past movies. Yüsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), our lead, crosses paths with Misaki (Tôko Miura) when Misaki is assigned to be his chauffeur while he prepares to direct a stage play in Hiroshima. As they open up to each other about troubling events from their respective pasts, it highlights the reality that there is no timetable for the grieving process. Both suffer survivor’s guilt and question their own self-worth. They each discover how much they need a sympathetic ear and outside perspective to push through their remorse.
While many films present us with a basic “guardian angel” character dynamic, Drive My Car provides its audience with portrayals that we do not often get to see in U.S. cinema. One major divergent path that Hamaguchi’s film travels is in portraying its Asian male characters as sexually active and capable partners. Too often in Western cinema, Asian men are portrayed as impotent, undesirable, or even asexual. Drive My Car, while not being overly raunchy, wades into these waters and humanizes all its characters in doing so.
Additionally, Yüsuke and Misaki’s bond manages to pull the audience in and steer clear of the temptation to force them together. Most stories on screen do not entertain the idea of a platonic opposite-sex relationship between single characters. Though some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the industry, the reality is audiences tend to crave that romance. Drive My Car pulls off the feat of showing two people thrust together connecting emotionally without the temptation, or at least the necessity, of a physical element. Interestingly enough, the movie pulls this off despite (or maybe because of) having already established the sexuality of its protagonist. It even shows an ancillary character who frequently seduces women but feels an emptiness over not achieving an emotional connection like Yüsuke. The story, on several occasions, illustrates intimacy in unexpected moments between unexpected duos.
Another trend the film manages to buck is the dependable but familiar revenge angle. In casting his play, Yüsuke encounters a stage actor named Kôji (Masaki Okada), who he has every reason to hold a grudge against. While some lingering resentment remains, he figures out a way to work with Kôji and communicate on a meaningful level. As they meet, a possible direction the story could take would be for Yüsuke’s entire focus to shift toward plotting Kôji’s demise. This shift would have undermined the far more important internal struggle that Yüsuke already faces and instead center the story around a far less important character. This is not to scoff at the allure of revenge films but more to applaud Drive My Car for choosing a route less rooted in escapism.
The most endearing element of the film, uncommon in just about any cinema, is the presence of a hearing-impaired character with a significant number of lines and screen time. One of Yüsuke’s actresses, Lee Yoo-na (Park Yoo-rim), speaks Korean Sign Language and wins her role with a strong audition. Despite being the spouse of Yusuke’s assistant director, she chooses to audition anonymously to avoid any favoritism. She invites Yüsuke over for dinner and stresses that she does not want to be treated more kindly than any other actor in the production. The penultimate scene in the film consists of Lee delivering a long, powerful monologue on stage, signing a message of encouragement with her arms wrapped around Yüsuke.
In addition to Driving Miss Daisy, Drive My Car also brings to mind the classic Alexander Payne film, About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson plays a disgruntled husband in a rut who, upon suddenly losing his wife, struggles adjusting to his new identity as a widower. He makes it his mission to hit the road and reconnect with his daughter, hoping to talk her out of what he sees as a future loveless marriage. While not an identical comp, Yüsuke needs a mission and a companion to find his sense of purpose. Hamaguchi weaves together a deep, personal story that manages to go against the grain, illustrating diversity of not just race and gender, but characters and relationships.