IN THEIR BEGINNINGS, films were not as concerned with the realistic elaboration of the action as they were with the various devices used by writers, directors, cinematographers and production artists to convey ideas and emotions through moving images . The theatricality – what Roland Barthes called a “sensual artifice” – was at the base of these films, charged not to recreate the truth on the screen but to cleverly construct the psyche. Shadows and bursts of light, recurring objects, long shots, static camera work, expressive play, and striking (but not necessarily beautiful) faces etched images into the viewer’s mind. As the language of cinema transformed in response to technological advancements, the distinction between film and theater deepened, and the two arts soon became widely seen as fundamentally opposed.
Yet, many filmmakers have thought rigorously about the theater and how to translate this thought with conviction to the screen. Werner Schroeter and Rainer Werner Fassbinder forged their experimental cinemas in the melting pot of postmodern theater, while more recently independent directors like Patrick Wang (A bread factory), Joséphine Decker (Madeline from Madeline) and Matías Piñeiro (Alto) used the reading device in a film to blur the boundaries between life and stage. Taking this practice beyond the West, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi envelops himself and his actors in a world close to melodrama, and in doing so, has found a way to imbue every minute with contingency. live theater. In its last two features, Drive my car and The wheel of fortune and fantasy, the elegance and simplicity of the costumes and the decoration of the sets do not signify the “real”. Instead, they provide a stark contrast to the sensational emotional lives of the characters, who struggle within and against the social conventions of modern Japan. In the second of WheelIn the three “Door Wide Open” vignettes, Nao (Katsuki Mori), a young married woman and non-traditional student, has an affair with another student, Sasaki (Shouma Kai). Sasaki was recently demoted for a year by the stoic Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who has just won a prestigious book award for his latest novel. In revenge, Sasaki asks Nao to seduce Segawa in order to get him fired. During their conversation, however, Segawa and Nao continually surprise each other as two misfits, isolated by their inability to comply. A bit impulsive, Nao is hated by her classmates, who find her distant and uncool; Segawa is smileless, transparent and demanding of himself and his students. Neither can twist into the social settings that would make them more likable, and in trying to fool Segawa, Nao begins to understand what an authentic connection and inspiration would look like outside of his marriage and marriage. emotionally negligent affair with Sasaki. Most of their story takes place in Ugly Friends’ rooms and school desks, but cinematographer Yukiko Iioka moves the camera with dramatic fanfare, capturing the characters from many angles. Even the blockage seems theatrical, each step deeply motivated and in concert with the goal.
Much of Hamaguchi’s work, including his previous films Passion (2008), Privacy (2013), his breakthrough Happy Hour (2015) and the most recent Asako I & II (2018) – presents cases of mistaken identity, bizarre coincidences and fortuitous collision. Happy Hour, a five-hour epic that follows four thirty-something friends living in Kobe, dwells on the catastrophe of the end and transformation of relationships, alternating gripping close-ups and overwhelming wide shots. Hamaguchi played the lead roles not by auditioning professionals, but by hosting an amateur theater workshop during an artist residency in Kobe that facilitated an organic process of character development. The emotionally detached and almost mechanical performances of his later films are reminiscent of the work of playwright and stage director Richard Maxwell, whose experimental company New York City Players prioritizes simple, elementary acting by “beginners.” which counter-intuitively maximizes the emotional thrust of dramatic scenes. With Drive my car, a free adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Hamaguchi found a scale on which not only to stage a meandering melodrama, but also to reconstruct, in a way, his conception of Happy Hour as an experience of doing theater. In the second act of Drive my car, director and actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) attends an artist residency in Hiroshima and begins auditioning actors to star in a multilingual production by Chekhov Uncle Vanya. One of these actors turns out to be the lover of Kafuku’s late wife, Kōji Takatsuki (Masaka Okada), while another is a mute woman, Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), who has a little secret. In many of their early tabletop readings, Kafuku orders the actors – most of whom appear to be trained or experienced – to recite their lines without emotion or emphasis.
Later, he gives them the right to explore. In a deeply immersive moment, a Chinese actress named Janice (Sonia Yuan) portrayed as Yelena, the young wife of a retired professor whose estate Vanya manages, rehearses a scene in the park in front of the others with Yoon-a, who plays Sonya, Vanya’s niece and confidante. Janice recites her lines in Mandarin while Yoon-a, who can hear but cannot communicate phonetically, speaks Korean Sign Language. Their scene is about the strained relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, who, bonding with shared unhappiness, release their tension in a strange and haunting gesture of elated closeness. As with Yelena and Sonya, the “real” Janice and Yoon-a speak their own languages, but they find a way to understand each other. The audience, on the other hand, experiences the gap between language and image, for Hamaguchi asks us not only to read the subtitles, but to remain in the deep absence that words produce. A kind of magic takes place which foreshadows the final and heartbreaking scene of the film.
The revelations that occur between Yelena and Sonya, quietly building an intimacy over the course of their exchange, reflect the shifting power dynamic between the actors and their director. Takatsuki, a disgraced TV star whom Kafuku intentionally misinterprets as Uncle Vanya despite his youth, continues to invite the director for a drink, which ends in confrontations between Takatsuki and stunned enemies who take secret photos of him. These encounters force Kafuku’s mysterious and skillful driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura) – an orphan born in the same year as Kafuku’s deceased daughter – to slow down while waiting to bring the director home (following a recent tragedy). , the management of the residence no longer allows artists to travel). Takatsuki, most recently in the news for having sex with a minor, now sees Janice, his older co-star. (One morning, Kafuku sees them together in a car, speeding past him on the way to rehearsal.)
Each of Hamaguchi’s scenes contains a multitude of subtly complex interactions; I have only described a fraction of what happens in Drive my car, yet most of his scenes could give hours of reflection. The film generally less appreciated by the director, Asako I & II, plays with the very idea of interpretation by centering a character abandoned by his first love to meet a man who resembles him remarkably. She then reluctantly engages in a relationship with this new old flame. His romantic ambivalence and his inability to distinguish the past from the present plunge his life into quiet chaos. Importantly, the film’s title duality doesn’t refer to the same boyfriends, but to the woman herself, Asako (Erika Karata), seen from either side of the abandonment. The drama of the identical face she sees (the two boyfriends are played by the same actor, Masahiro Higashide) is underscored by a major change of context. When Asako met her first boyfriend, the adventurous and elusive Baku, in Osaka, she was young, spontaneous, without a hitch. When she meets Ryohei, the Baku lookalike, she works in a cafe in Tokyo and he is a suit in a large sake company. The lightness and luminosity of Osaka are supplanted by the serious rain of the capital. What happened to Asako?
Hamaguchi takes his films from this piercing existential question: who do we become when our lives are transformed by circumstances? He exploits this question not only narratively with an arc, but dramaturgically with role swaps, rehearsals and iterations, embracing the impossibility of definitive answers or conclusions for his characters. The absence then becomes a space of possibility for the actor and the audience, and not a void to be filled with information or explanations. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive my car are milestones for the director who, since he wowed the festival circuit with Happy Hour a few years ago, continues to push cinema out of its comfort zones.
Drive my car opened in US theaters on November 24.