Despite a title that sounds like it could be a reboot of Jason Statham’s wild ‘n wooly “Transporter” series, “Drive My Car,” the Japanese Oscar entry for best international feature and now playing in theatres, is not an action film. It is a slow, meditative film about self-acceptance and regret whose only action comes in the form of emotional reckoning and keenly observed human behavior.
Based on a short story by Murakami Haruki, the three-hour “Drive My Car” centers on Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor-director grieving the sudden passing of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). Even though he walked in on his wife and her lover shortly before she died, he is devastated by her death. After a two-year break from work, during which he tried to piece his life back together, he accepts a job directing a production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at a theater festival in Hiroshima.
He drives solo to Hiroshima in his vintage Talladega Red Saab 900 Aero coupe but is told that during his stay he’ll have to have a chauffeur named Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) drive him from place to place. Although his car has been a welcome isolation chamber for him during his bereavement, he reluctantly agrees to allow the 23-year-old woman control of the car.
Meanwhile, at work, Kafuku makes some odd choices. He casts the role of Sonya with an actress who uses Korean sign language and hires a scandal ridden TV star, Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) in “Uncle Vanya’s” lead role.
The show’s rehearsals are difficult but outside the theatre, in the Saab, Kafuku and Watari become close, sharing stories about the most troubled aspects of their lives. Ultimately, lessons about moving forward are learned as the unlikely pair get to know one another.
“Drive My Car” is a quiet, introspective, odd-couple movie. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is unafraid to set his own pace as his characters search for answers to the questions that have rooted themselves in their psyches. It is slow but not listless. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a deeply felt relationship movie that sees two characters working through their personal recoveries to find a path forward in life.
The performances by Nishijima and Miura are understated but as they connect there is an undeniable sense of growth and, by the end of their time together, a sense of freedom from the memories and events that have dented their spirit.