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(Credit: Drive My Car)

Film

Why 'Drive My Car' deserves the Best Picture win at the Oscars

Ryusuke Hamaguchi has gained unprecedented global recognition after his latest project Drive My Car picked up multiple nominations at the Oscars this year. The film also managed to follow in the footsteps of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, earning bids for both the prestigious Best Picture category as well as the Best International Feature.

Whenever such a film breaks into the mainstream consciousness, it is subjected to all kinds of cultural forces that it would have usually avoided. The same thing happened to Parasite when it made history by winning Best Picture, which generated all sorts of meaningless debates about the validity of the decision and Bong’s credentials as a filmmaker.

On the flip side, many people who wouldn’t have known about Parasite got to experience what Bong had to offer due to the extensive cultural appeal of the Oscars. However, that is also problematic in many ways because those discussions often start and stop with the film in question even though an auteur like Bong has produced multiple gems.

I still believe that the greatest film ever made by the South Korean maestro was his 2003 magnum opus Memories of Murder, but it cannot compete with the popularity of Parasite. It seems like Hamaguchi is set to receive the same kind of treatment for Drive My Car, a film that is nowhere near his best but far superior to its competitors during this Oscars season.

Of course, that is kind of a bold statement to make when the Best Picture category contains nominated works by other brilliant artists such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Denis Villeneuve, Guillermo del Toro and Jane Campion. Despite the high bar set by the competition, Drive My Car definitely soars above the rest in many ways.

There have been several interesting adaptations of the works of Haruki Murakami, including Burning and A Girl, She is 100%, but none of them have been so simultaneously literary and cinematic as Drive My Car. Based upon an eponymous short story by Murakami, Hamaguchi’s adaptation works so well because it transcends the shortcomings of the famous novelist.

While many have claimed that Murakami writes about women without understanding them, the same cannot be said of Hamaguchi at all. In fact, Hamaguchi’s greatest masterpiece – Happy Hour (2015), is an unparalleled five-hour exploration of the lives of middle-class Japanese women who navigate the labyrinths of marriage, sexual desire, love and friendships.

Murakami’s short story is a rudimentary tale, but Hamaguchi’s interpretation is the opposite. It has layers upon layers of subjectivity and philosophical implications, focusing on the life of a theatre director (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) whose wife ends up dying from a brain haemorrhage just after he discovers that she is cheating on him.

Although this might seem like the premise for a formulaic J-drama at first, it delves deep into the human condition as well as the epistemological and ontological paradoxes that plague us. The film follows the director as he moves to Hiroshima for a new project and develops a close friendship with the female driver assigned to him.

Hamaguchi has always been interested in the fundamental problems of language (à la Wittgenstein) and Drive My Car becomes the perfect vehicle for them. Through multilingual stage productions of the works of great masters such as Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov, Hamaguchi beautifully portrays how all languages are articulations of our unending loneliness.

The title obviously refers to the loss of control that the director feels over his life after the tragic demise of his wife, robbed of closure. Instead of getting the opportunity to confront her, he is stuck talking to her lover, who happens to be his new colleague. Masochistic but also tender in many ways, Drive My Car might be a new definitive masterpiece on grief, loss and moving on.

Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography is also mesmerising, perfectly capturing the claustrophobia of urban isolation and the pockets of emptiness in rural regions. Although it wasn’t nominated for its cinematography, Drive My Car definitely deserves the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay as well for what Hamaguchi has managed to fashion out of that short story.

“As a filmmaker, the idea of creating words and movement together is something that I deal with a lot in my work,” he said in an interview. “Words and dialogue on their own aren’t necessarily very appealing in a film. But cinema is about movement, so in a very simple way, once you put these ideas into a mode of transportation — a train, a car etc. — suddenly it’s all more watchable. Suddenly there’s the sense of a destination that arises.”

It seems like Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog will probably win the coveted Best Picture prize because it has already broken multiple records. Even if Drive My Car does not end up winning, I hope that these nominations urge more people to pay attention to some of the other works of Hamaguchi, like Intimacies and Happy Hour, because he has been one of the most talented auteurs in the international landscape for a while.