Throughout his short career, Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has often used literary touches to track the passage of time. His 317-minute debut, “Happy Hour” sprawled out like a novel, while his recent Berlin winner “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” split the subject into an anthology.
He’s even evoked such interests with his film’s titles, naming his 2018 Cannes competition entry “Asako I and II” to underscore the fact that we can be wholly different people at different points in our lives.
And so when “Drive My Car,” which premiered on Sunday in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, rolls its opening credits a full 40 minutes into the three-hour film, you get the sense that Hamaguchi is playing with the idea of prologues, of elements that sit just beyond a narrative arc that shades everything that follows. It’s a wonderful impulse that works beautifully in the film — perhaps a little too beautifully, however, because the prologue outshines everything that comes next.
Not that “Drive My Car” is in any way a misfire; it just takes a risk that doesn’t quite work. But why fault a film for trying — especially when the initial results are so achingly good, evoking with such precision the fraught but loving marriage between stage actor Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). Having buried their only child years before, they enter middle age with a marriage built on a foundation of love, but one where the cracks of ennui and infidelity continue to grow.
By the time the titles finally hit, Kafuku has become a widower and the narrative has moved forward two years in time. Still reeling from his loss, he leaps at the chance to direct a multi-lingual, multi-cultural adaptation of “Uncle Vanya,” where every actor speaks a different language and comes from a different country. He accepts, in part, because the hour-long drive between the theatre and his residence gives him all the more time to spend in his red SAAB listening to Oto read lines on tape.
But into the picture comes the taciturn Misaki (Toko Miura), a young woman hired to … well, you know the song, and it’s an old favorite: Two strangers spend hours in each other’s company, gradually warming to each other, finally helping one another heal and grow. I bet you could sing along.
Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, the film nevertheless benefits from many of Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe’s original ideas. Because the original text is but a 30-page story, “Drive My Car” is positively bursting with interesting flourishes and winsome tangents not found in the source. But alongside them comes a dose of heavy-handed melodrama that overtakes the last act, which is predicated on an emotional investment that simply never develops. And so the vehicle sputters in the final laps, trailing off in disappointment after starting so strong. Still, an odd whiff shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Ryusuke Hamaguchi. If past is prologue, he’ll be firing on all cylinders soon enough.