In recent years, the subject of language has been prominent on American movie-award stages. In 2020, Lee Isaac Chung’s gorgeous family drama Minari was controversially nominated for best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes despite being in both English and Korean and dealing with the very American experiences of isolation and immigration. A year earlier, after winning in the same category for Parasite, the South Korean director Bong Joon Ho had memorably urged viewers to “overcome 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.
Both of these films also underscored how insufficient language is as a lens through which to judge, categorize, and enjoy art. In a world where smartphones can translate phrases in a manner of milliseconds and stories from around the globe reach us every day, such barriers feel surmountable and less significant than they have in the past. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-nominated 2021 film, Drive My Car (which is now streaming on HBO Max), directly addresses the fluidity of language in a contemporary world. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, Drive My Car is a profound movie preoccupied with the things that can be communicated among people who do not share a common tongue.
Though the film is mainly about the close friendship that forms between an actor and director named Yusuke Kafuku and the young woman, Misaki Watari, who is hired as his driver, it also follows Kafuku’s efforts to stage a play in Hiroshima. Specifically, he’s directing a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a cast composed of actors who speak English, Chinese, Tagalog, Japanese, and Korean Sign Language; during rehearsals, not all the actors can understand what the others are saying. But the task Kafuku lays out for his multilingual cast is the same one that Hamaguchi lays out for his multilingual audience: Even if you don’t understand all the words being spoken in the script, trust that the emotional response you have will be genuine.
In many scenes, the dialogue has nothing to do with the real drama taking place. For example, during table reads for Uncle Vanya, Kafuku asks his performers to practice their lines by delivering them in their mother tongues with as little acting as possible. The idea seems to be to first have the actors memorize the rhythm of the script, reducing it to an instinctive ebb and flow of sound rather than meaning. A young actor named Takatsuki, who is cast as Uncle Vanya, chafes against this directive, adding too much feeling to his lines; an exasperated Kafuku asks him to try again and again. Though this may seem like a normal struggle between an actor and director, beneath the dialogue is a swirl of subtext and repressed feeling that the other characters, as well as the viewers, can pick up on. Takatsuki once had an affair with Kafuku’s wife and is using the play as a misguided attempt to connect emotionally with Kafuku. Meanwhile, Kafuku’s resentments toward Takatsuki come through in his expression, even if they’re not explicit in his words.
From the start of the three-hour-long film, Hamaguchi also attempts to construct a movie that eschews the bounds of language by relying heavily on ambient sounds. Consider an early scene at a temple where the audience learns that Kafuku and his wife lost a young daughter. A heavy rain beats upon the roof. The sequence moves indoors, replete with quieter images that many viewers will read as signifying mourning—Kafuku and his wife clad in black, looking somber as they gaze upon a framed photo of their child. A few minutes later, in a new scene, the sound of rainfall resumes. Even before Hamaguchi reveals that another funeral is taking place—this one for Kafuku’s wife—the drumbeat of the storm has cued the audience, acting as an auditory sign for death.
Through many small moments like these, Drive My Car builds a nonverbal vocabulary for its audience, deftly using sounds and soundlessness to convey a great deal of tension, emotion, and plot. The noise of the titular car, which rumbles in the background as Watari ferries Kafuku home from rehearsals, becomes a motif that amplifies the depths of his quiet musing. On car rides, Kafuku instructs Watari to play recordings of his late wife reading lines from Uncle Vanya. The slight click of Watari’s finger against the tape deck and the accompanying swell of Kafuku’s wife’s voice reminds the audience—regardless of their ability to understand the words she reads—of her affairs, of the way she binds a reluctant Kafuku to Takatsuki, her ghostly presence propelling Kafuku forward.
One of Drive My Car’s most memorable sequences comes about three-quarters into the film. As difficulties around 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 fraught love he had with his wife and Watari interjecting only to offer a brief comment or insight. (Some critics may see this as characteristic of the misogyny that can be a hallmark of Murakami’s work.) In Hamaguchi’s reimagination of the story, Watari is a more fully fleshed-out character and unwinds her own traumatic past in detail as Kafuku processes his marriage. As a result, the two characters end up on an impromptu road trip to the far north of Japan, hours away from Hiroshima.
Conversation drifts between them from time to time, but the montage is mostly of a companionable, understanding quiet. Scenery drifts past the window until, nearing the end of their drive, Kafuku and Watari enter a tunnel. When they exit, the temperate winter of Japan they had been driving through before is replaced with a blanketed snowscape. All sound is cut. Silence descends onto the two characters while simultaneously enveloping the audience. Even previous scenes that seemed pointedly muted feel busy compared with this totally soundless sequence, showcasing Hamaguchi’s use of layered quiet. Through the snow, the two characters drive on to the site of one of Watari’s personal tragedies, where their climactic conversation takes place.
But before that scene and without dialogue or even a single decibel, Hamaguchi re-creates the utter overwhelm of being suspended in grief, love, and regret, and the paralysis of not being able to do anything but simply exist within those feelings. He does not allow the characters speech for exposition or cathartic release. Instead, he brings the audience into Kafuku’s and Watari’s emotions. No subtitles, no translations, are necessary, as if to say anyone who has watched these characters up until this point can achieve an empathy that, through Hamaguchi’s design, transcends words. Whether or not Drive My Car wins Best Picture or Best International Feature Film at the Oscars, the film joins the conversation of works that ask us to question the purpose, use, and importance of language.