There’s an unstuck-from-time quality to Drive My Car, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Best Picture-nominated film streaming now on HBO Max.
Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) drives a Saab 900 Turbo; his model was made in 1987, the line was discontinued in 1998, and Saab has been defunct as a company since 2016. In the Saab’s tape deck, a technology that has been obsolete for nearly as long as the 900 Turbo has been off the market, Yusuke—an actor in, and director of, plays—listens to his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) read lines from Anton Chekhov’s (d. 1904) play Uncle Vanya (written and first produced in 1899) to aid him in his efforts to memorize Vanya’s part.
Yet Oto works for a TV station that has allotted her some time for a slightly more risqué project that calls to mind something from the so-called Golden Age of Television. Cell phone cameras snap pics of bad-boy actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). And we learn that the Kafuku’s daughter died in 2001 and has been dead for some time. It is modern and timeless all at once.
Drive My Car’s plot, such as it is, involves Yusuke’s efforts to stage Uncle Vanya following the untimely death of his wife two years previously. After the death of their daughter, they had drifted apart and she was cheating on him; he had taken to avoiding her in order to delay a confrontation, and she died of a brain hemorrhage the evening after implying that she wanted to have The Talk.
As a man who would do anything to avoid The Talk or any variation thereof, I empathized. And this is a movie about empathy, and finding empathy through artistry. As part of his residency at a Hiroshima theater, Yusuke is required to have a driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), who comes to love the Saab 900 as much as he does. They grow closer as they learn more of each other; she comes to appreciate Uncle Vanya, the words of which serve as a sort of chorus, echoing the moods and the ideas of the picture.
Yusuke’s adaptation of Chekhov’s play is odd, in that the words are delivered in each actor’s native tongue—Japanese, Chinese, even Korean sign language—while the dialogue is projected on a screen behind them in all the languages so the audience can keep up. I couldn’t help but think of that staging this week when a fight erupted on Film Twitter about a review of the new Pixar film, Turning Red; the offending critic was ripped to shreds for writing that he couldn’t relate to the picture because it’s too rooted in a community (Asian immigrants) with which he is unfamiliar and a place (Toronto) he doesn’t know.
The universality of art transcends time, language, or location; Chekhov’s play about a man in a Russian village at the end of nineteenth century has power enough to inspire reactions in contemporary Japanese performers, infecting them, bringing them in touch with their own emotions and angers and hurts and fears.
I will happily grant all that and more—the performances are uniformly excellent!—while also admitting that Drive My Car simply doesn’t work for me. I’ve seen comparisons to John Cassavetes and this movie called to mind his Husbands, another movie that simply didn’t work for me. Both films feature a bunch of people standing around (or sitting around) and talking about stuff. The stuff of life. What it means to find connection in life. How we react to betrayals large and small, tragedies minor and major. It’s talky without being snappy, languorous without being pleasurable.
And while we eventually arrive in a place of deep emotion, the detours along the way during this nearly three-hour journey felt interminable.
After Yang—the latest from Kogonada, the celebrated video essayist and director of the critically acclaimed Columbus—is, at 96 minutes, the rare movie that I wish had been just a bit longer. Unmoored from time in a slightly different way from the preceding film, After Yang is set at some point in the future following some sort of conflict between the United States and China. An influx of Chinese adoptions by American couples has led to the rise of an industry of Chinese androids to play big brother for the adopted youngsters and fill them in on their cultural heritage.
Yang (Justin H. Min) is one such android; he serves as big brother and babysitter to Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who has been adopted by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith). After Yang begins, well, after Yang breaks down. Mika is a mess at the thought of losing her “big brother,” while Jake and Kyra begin to understand just how much of her upbringing they’ve offloaded to the robot, buried as they are in work.
When Jake tries to get Yang fixed, he first runs into commercialized bureaucracy (the Apple-like store at which he first tries to get the android repaired informs him that he’s better off recycling the bot and getting a new model) and commercialized paranoia (an off-the-books repairman tinkers with the bot’s guts, uncovering what he believes to be tracking device but is in fact the android’s memory bank), before turning to commercialized education (a museum for robots that hopes to purchase Yang to better understand how these human-looking machines “think”).
After Yang is a frequently moving examination of what it means to be human, how (or whether) memory can define us, and how we come to define our families. Director Kogonada also edited the picture, and the montages of Yang’s memories provide a glimpse of what it means to have led a well-lived life. Two such lives, actually, though you should watch the movie to see what I mean.
Again: I wish this had been a bit longer. While Kogonada (who wrote the film, in addition to directing and editing) does a good job of worldbuilding without overexplaining, I could have used just a bit more about this near-future society’s approach to childrearing. Adoptions, clones, androids: What has happened to set society down this path? More than that, though, I was a bit surprised there was no effort to interrogate the ultimate utility of Yang and his robotic brethren; it is just assumed that these devices would be needed (and, indeed, that an enormous commercial architecture would spring up to support them) to teach orphans like Mika about the land of their birth. For a movie like this one—a film with a deep interest in the nature of memories and the role they play in shaping us—it feels like a missed opportunity. What is “heritage” to someone with no family left in the land whence they come? What role should our genetic precursors play in shaping how we see ourselves?
That aside, After Yang is a quick gut-punch of a movie, one that messes with the head and the heart in equal measure. You can watch it on Showtime, where it’s streaming now.