I went to The Projector on Tuesday this week for the 7:30pm screening of “Drive My Car” which won “Best Screenplay” in the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
It is a movie adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story of the same title. (SPOILER ALERT: important plot points will be revealed, so please do not continue reading if you plan to watch the movie – it’s really worth watching)
The movie unfolded like a dreamscape – a meditation on intimacy and the distance between lonely souls. The title credits did not come in until 30 mins into the show when many plot points had already been established.
It really made me wonder for a long time what was going on.
It was such a departure from the usual narrative style of Hollywood Movies or even most other Asian movies influenced by that style. The surrealist style is pervasive even in the way the characters communicate. Most of what they say is so subtle and understated it is easy to miss.
A lot of the exchange is symbolic.
Words are kept to a minimum and every word means so much more than what is uttered.
The story revolves around Yasuke an actor and play director who, two years after losing his wife is still beset with grief.
The movie opens with a portrayal of Yasuke’s complicated relationship with his wife, Oto.
Yasuke and Oto live a harmonious life together – no dramas, no disasters, no fights. However, something is amiss. Yasuke and Oto seem to communicate through stories. Oto reveals herself to Yasuke through original stories which surface post-coitus.
She relates the plot-point and main character of this story and he takes what she relates and runs with it, expanding on the story, exploring with her ways the story can develop.
Their relationship is marked by grief and trauma from the death of their young daughter, who passed away almost 20 years ago. Their relationship, while seemingly intimate and creatively expressive, reveals itself to be somewhat delicate.
The protagonist and his wife aren’t able to break out of a comfortable but limited way of relating. They aren’t able to have real conversations, so they connect over sex and the stories that evolve from their sexual connection. She writes to work out the grief of losing their only child.
There is a fine balance in their relationship, but it requires them to hide aspects of themselves. This suppression of their real selves eats away at their sense of intimacy and they are both hidden from each other.
Unfulfilled, she seeks out deeper emotional connections through sexual encounters with the various actors she hires to act out the stories that she writes.
Her husband is well aware of this fact but fails to confront her.
One day he leaves for the airport only to have the flight cancelled due to a blizzard. He returns home to find her having sex in the living room with Koji, a young and handsome man – the latest actor in her long string of illicit sexual rendezvous.
Yasuke is visibly overcome, however, he quietly leaves the house and heads to a hotel near the airport.
I was mulling over how come Yasuke did not get mad and confront her when he caught her in the midst of copulation with Koji whom she’d brought on set.
He reveals later on that he was scared of losing her.
But this wasn’t even about self-respect…or his lack of it, it seems as if it is more about the fact that he really loved her. He accepted her fully as she was. He didn’t have the capacity to confront her because he felt that perhaps this was how she was coping with the grief.
He wanted to maintain the equilibrium.
I suppose people live like that – with compartmentalized hearts and lives. I was really surprised by how he talked to her over a video chat almost immediately after catching her and her illicit lover in a sex act and leaving the house.
You could see affection written all over his face even as he spoke to her. His wife had just betrayed and lied to him again, but he was just like his usual self, full of love and kindness. I just couldn’t believe it.
He was an actor. Maybe that’s how.
He had leaned so deeply into that role that he essentially became that person. The person he was became indistinguishable from the role he played.
One day his wife expresses to him she’d like to talk to him when he gets back home later in the evening. She wants to have a real conversation with him, however, Yasuke is petrified – afraid that whatever “real” conversation they have will cause their relationship to breakdown. He spends hours driving aimlessly on the road, screwing up the courage to talk to her. When he finally gets home, he finds her collapsed on the floor, he runs to gather her into his arms, only to realize that she is dead.
The post-mortem reveals that she died from a brain aneurysm.
Two years later, he is commissioned to direct a play by Anton Chekhov – “Uncle Vanya”. Koji, the last actor who’d slept with Oto unexpectedly shows up for the rehearsal for “Uncle Vanya”. Surprisingly, Yasuke does not turn him away and in facts gives him the lead role of Uncle Vanya himself.
Over the course of rehearsals, Koji seeks Yasuke out for drinks at a bar. Koji reveals that he is looking for “connection.” He feels drawn to Yasuke because he is the husband of the late Oto whom he deeply admired. It’s quite common for the people left behind by the departed to bond with each other because they share the common trauma of losing the same person. It can be a healing process where one can gain relational insight through connecting with the other loved ones of the departed.
Yasuke and Oto find out more about the late Koji through each other – more secrets are revealed and it is hinted to Koji that Yasuke knows about his affair with his late wife. However, there is no blame assigned, only acceptance and a deep love and respect for the late Koji – in spite of her excesses.
There was a mute girl on the set who inhabits Sonia’s character in “Uncle Vanya” played by Korean actress Park Yoo Rim. She took my breath away with her acting. If there is anything that confirms that our vocal chords are not necessary for communication, her acting definitely does that. The way she emotes with her hands and her body language is so solid, like it comes from a place that is deep within her. You know she is whole, you know she has integrity, you know she means what she says and says what she means, all without articulating a word.
That is something else.
It was also very interesting how on stage these actors speak in their native languages. The Taiwanese actress character, playing Elena in “Uncle Vanya”, is fluent in English and Mandarin, but cannot speak Japanese, so she reads out her lines in Mandarin. The cast is multi-lingual, but the dialogue flows as if they speak the same language.
To me this only goes to show how much is communicated without words. How was Koji able to play his role so seamlessly across from the Taiwanese actress role as Elena at the rehearsal for “Uncle Vanya” when they couldn’t understand each other verbally? They knew their lines, but they intuited the communication from each other’s body language.
I have left the best character for the last – Misaki – A 23 year old driver who is appointed to be Yasuke’s chauffeur for the duration of his stay in Hiroshima as he directs the play.
I really love how Yasuke’s relationship with Misaki unfolds: at first he balks at even having a driver – he was really guarded – this defensive, almost aggressive part of him did not surface until he encountered the person of Misaki. The car is where he practices his acting lines to a tape recording of the play. He deeply resents the idea of having a driver intrude on his private practice space. Due to health and safety regulations under company policy, however, he cannot refuse a chauffeur.
Misaki is introverted and very restrained. She remains unfazed despite Yasuke’s cold reception to her; yet, she caters well to Yasuke and intuits his needs even though she does not say much to him. Over time their relationship evolves and as they become more familiar with each other, they share raw pieces of their history in a way that brings deep healing to both of their stories.
It is revealed during one of their quiet rides together that Misaki had a mother who would hit her whenever she drove the car jerkily. However, she seems to have internalized the abuse she received and tells Yasuke that if it were not for her mother, she would not be able to drive as well and as smoothly as she currently does.
When the play is almost fully formed, Koji unexpectedly gets into legal trouble and has to abandon his role as Vanya. Yasuke is compelled to take over the role of Uncle Vanya, a role that he has tried to evade because “it forces the real [him] out.” In taking over the role of Uncle Vanya, a neurotic and difficult character, Yasuke is forced to confront his internal contradictions which he has long buried, along with his late wife.
Upon realizing that he has to take over the role of Uncle Vanya, he reaches a near emotional meltdown which he circumvents by asking Misaki to take take him back to her hometown, to the home where her mother was buried by a freak landslide – the site of Misaki’s own grief.
Misaki carries enormous amounts of guilt for having “killed” her mother. As she surveys her collapsed home that is buried in the snow, she relates how after brutally beating her up, Misaki’s mother would regress into another personality, a young girl 6 years old or so, who wouldn’t be able to walk, and who loved puzzles.
The phenomenon of taking on an alternate personality is called “splitting” – it is a dissociative symptom experienced by those who suffer from severe abuse in childhood. Your personality is split off into two or more parts. Exiled parts yourself (mainly the child-like parts of yourself) stay hidden and do not come out until something triggers the shutdown of the broken adult part of you. After beating Misaki up, her mother’s abusive personality would “shutdown,” and her exiled vulnerable inner child would come out instead.
Misaki reveals to Yasuke that she bonded with this young girl, took care of her and eventually came to see her as “her only friend.”
Yasuke, in turn, shares about how he wishes that he could see his late wife, Oto – if he had the chance to speak to her, he’d tell her how angry he felt with her, he’d scold her, but he’d also tell her how much he loved her. He cries while pouring his heart out to Yasuke telling her that they will always think of the ones who have died.
In that moment I teared up.
It’s been 6 years since my Father passed on from Pancreatic cancer. I am still grieving him. In addition to him, I think about other loved ones who have passed on: Anthony Yeo – the father of Counselling in Singapore, who, in my early twenties, when I was going through suicidal depression, counseled me twice a week. If it wasn’t for him, and the safe space he provided for me, I wouldn’t be alive today.
They say that when people die, a part of you dies along with them. Anthony Yeo shared with me though that you can talk to those who have passed on. When he was still alive, he would talk to his own dearly departed too.
I talk to my Dad – sometimes I tell him how sad and disappointed I feel about some of the things he did. One time I shouted at him and blamed him for abandoning us when we were kids. He came back though, and tried to be present in our lives in the limited way he could. Other times I tell him “thanks” for all the ways he’s been there for me. In rare moments, I find myself sharing a private joke with him.
“Drive My Car” really drove home the point to me that there’s a vanishing point in our suffering. If we were to paint a picture of our life and our struggles, there is a vanishing point in the picture which ties all the disparate pieces of our broken lives together. In that quiet place, everything slows downs, and as we lean into our suffering instead of trying to run away from it, the skein of our unprocessed grief is woven into the larger fabric of our lives.
Grief is strange – it comes back at odd moments, hitting hard like bullet holes to the heart.
However, when you take the time to listen to how you really feel and attend to your deepest needs, the pain lands, and you realize you are safe, despite, and maybe even because of the pain that you have finally chosen to stop running away from.