In recent years, the subject of language has occupied a prominent place on American cinema scenes. In 2020, Lee Isaac Chung’s magnificent family drama minari was controversially nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes despite being in English and Korean and dealing with very American experiences of isolation and immigration. A year earlier, after winning in the same category for Parasite, South Korean director Bong Joon Ho memorably urged viewers to “get over the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” Both minari and Parasite were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and the latter became the first non-English language film to win the top prize.
These two films also underscored how insufficient language is as a lens through which to judge, categorize, and appreciate art. In a world where smartphones can translate sentences in milliseconds and stories from around the world reach us every day, such obstacles seem surmountable and less important than in the past. The 2021 Oscar nominated film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, drive my car (which is now streaming on HBO Max), directly addresses the fluidity of language in a contemporary world. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami of the same name, drive my car is a profound film concerned with the things that can be communicated between people who do not share a common language.
Although the film is primarily about the close friendship that forms between an actor and director named Yusuke Kafuku and the young woman, Misaki Watari, who is hired as a driver, it also follows Kafuku’s efforts to put on a play in Hiroshima. More specifically, he directs a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov Uncle Vanya with a cast of actors who speak English, Chinese, Tagalog, Japanese, and Korean Sign Language; during rehearsals, not all actors can understand what others are saying. But the task Kafuku offers its multilingual cast is the same that Hamaguchi offers its multilingual audience: even if you don’t understand every word spoken in the script, trust that the emotional response you get will be genuine.
In many scenes, the dialogue has nothing to do with the real drama unfolding. For example, during table reads for Uncle Vanya, Kafuku asks his performers to practice their lines by delivering them in their native language with as little backlash as possible. The idea seems to be to have the actors memorize the pace of the script first, reducing it to an instinctive ebb and flow of sound rather than meaning. A young actor named Takatsuki, who plays Uncle Vanya, chafes at this directive, adding too much sentiment to his lines; an exasperated Kafuku asks him to try again and again. While it might seem like a normal struggle between an actor and a director, beneath the dialogue lies a whirlwind of subtext and a pent-up feeling that other characters, as well as viewers, can pick up on. Takatsuki once had an affair with Kafuku’s wife and uses the play as a misguided attempt to emotionally connect with Kafuku. Meanwhile, Kafuku’s resentments towards Takatsuki show through in his expression, even if not made explicit in his words.
From the start of the three-hour film, Hamaguchi also tries to construct a film that avoids the limits of language by relying heavily on ambient sounds. Consider an early scene in a temple where the audience learns that Kafuku and his wife have lost a young daughter. A heavy rain falls on the roof. The footage moves indoors, filled with calmer images that many viewers will see as signifying mourning – Kafuku and his wife dressed in black, looking grim as they look at a framed photo of their child. A few minutes later, in a new scene, the sound of rain resumes. Even before Hamaguchi reveals that another funeral is taking place – this one for Kafuku’s wife – the drumbeat of the storm has alerted the audience, acting as an aural sign of death.
Through many little moments like these, drive my car builds a non-verbal vocabulary for his audience, skillfully using sounds and silence to convey plenty of tension, emotion and intrigue. The sound of the titular car, rumbling in the background as Watari drives Kafuku home from rehearsals, becomes a motif that amplifies the depths of his silent reverie. During car rides, Kafuku asks Watari to play recordings of his late wife reading lines of Uncle Vanya. The soft snap of Watari’s finger against the tape recorder and the swelling voice of Kafuku’s wife accompanying it reminds the audience – no matter how well they understand the words she reads – of her adventures, the way she binds a reluctant Kafuku to Takatsuki, his ghostly presence propelling Kafuku forward.
One of drive my carThe most memorable sequences come about three quarters into the film. As the difficulties surrounding the production of Uncle Vanya come to a head, Kafuku and Watari begin to open up to each other about their lives. In Murakami’s original short story, the exposition is mostly one-sided, with Kafuku detailing the intense love he had with his wife and Watari only intervening to offer a brief commentary or insight. (Some critics may see this as a feature of the the misogyny that may be a hallmark of Murakami’s work.) In Hamaguchi’s reimagining of the story, Watari is a more fleshed out character and unfolds his own traumatic past in great detail as Kafuku processes his marriage. As a result, the two characters find themselves on an impromptu road trip to the far north of Japan, a few hours from Hiroshima.
The conversation drifts between them from time to time, but the editing is mostly calm and understanding. The scenery passes by the window until, near the end of their ride, Kafuku and Watari enter a tunnel. When they step outside, the temperate Japanese winter they had experienced before is replaced by a snow-covered landscape. All sounds are muted. Silence descends on both characters while simultaneously enveloping the audience. Even previous scenes that seemed ostensibly muted feel busy compared to this utterly silent sequence, showcasing Hamaguchi’s use of layered silence. Through the snow, the two characters travel to the site of one of Watari’s personal tragedies, where their pivotal conversation takes place.
But before this scene and without dialogue or even a single decibel, Hamaguchi recreates the utter submersion of being suspended in grief, love and regret, and the paralysis of not being able to do anything but simply exist in those feelings. It does not allow characters to speak for exposition or cathartic release. Instead, he brings the audience into the emotions of Kafuku and Watari. No subtitles, no translations needed, as if to say anyone who has looked at these characters thus far can achieve an empathy that, through Hamaguchi’s design, transcends words. Whether or not drive my car Winning Best Picture or Best International Feature at the Oscars, the film joins the conversation of works that ask us to question the purpose, use and importance of language.