A freshly minted film-festival godling, Ryusuke Hamaguchi may be the 21st-century master we didn’t know we needed. It’s an unsexy sell—long, discursive, deceptively aimless narratives about modern Japanese life, such as his five-and-a-quarter-hour miniaturist epic, Happy Hour (2015). But these are experiences you absorb like rain in a drought. His latest two films, released within a month of each other after comprising a rare double-header at this year’s New York Film Festival, anchor for us Hamaguchi converts the man’s sly and distinctive sensibility, which has often and understandably been likened to the French New Wave. Hamaguchi’s loose-limbed narratives can be Rivettian in length (if not in spirit), chatty and patient like Rohmer but not as schematic, and reminiscent of Alain Resnais’s redolent passion for mysterious tales-within-tale-telling.
But these films are nothing if not intrinsically Japanese, of the moment and of the culture, however stubbornly cutting their own ruminative path across a jungle of famously berserk pop culture. The newest, Drive My Car, could be his deftest dish of fiction, a gently accumulating three-hour saga that tests the tensile strength of various kinds of human connectiveness, and finds them steadfast as often as they are fragile and mysterious. It takes a while to see what Hamaguchi is doing—you could say he’s allergic to narrative “building”; rather, his tales amble and pile up, but horizontally, and the film’s last hour is no more climactic than its first.
We begin in a moment of post-coital buzz with a husband and wife, Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Oto (Reika Kirishima), as she begins spinning a yarn about a lovelorn teen girl who sneaks into a boy’s house and leaves hidden clues to her ardor. He contributes, and their creative rapport carries on through their routines; she’s a screenwriter, he’s a theater actor-director (we see him doing Waiting for Godot), and their mutual enjoyment seems suspiciously bulletproof. So when later that day his flight is delayed and he returns home without calling first, we’re appalled but not shocked to find her passionately screwing some unseen dude on the couch. What we don’t expect is Yusuke’s reaction: He has none, leaves quietly, and later fakes a Skype call with her, pretending he’s already landed.
In his other movies, this marital crisis is what the story would wrestle with, and resolve, but in Drive My Car, Hamaguchi has barely even started. For us, living through this film’s story as it detours and cascades in its odd, organic way is the whole show, so everything’s a spoiler—without being necessarily dramatic. (A winner at Cannes, the screenplay adapts a short story by Haruki Murakami, like Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which has a similarly distractable sensibility.) Suffice it to say that we don’t learn why Yusuke seems unfazed by his wife’s infidelity until very late in the film, and by then it seems beside the point. In the meantime, tragedy strikes off-camera, after a sudden car accident that proves inconsequential, and Yusuke’s path takes him to Hiroshima, where an arts festival has invited him to stage Uncle Vanya with a multinational cast of actors, many of whom cannot understand each other. Included is a speechless Korean sign-language user, whose presence amid this flood of talk is graceful and mesmerizing, and a near-sociopathic young-stud actor who may well be Oto’s unseen lover. The rehearsals are fascinating, vital in the moment for everyone’s dawning awareness, not because we’re concerned with the resulting performance, which we barely see (another intersection with Rivette, from Paris Belongs to Us to Gang of Four). Even so, the focus shifts to Yusuke’s growing relationship with his driver (Toko Miura), a young, taciturn nowhere girl more comfortable with cars than people, who harbors secrets of her own.
There’s a lot more: characters in their own movies, stories that get rewritten, memories that get rehearsed like lines in Chekhov. Watching a Hamaguchi film is like a form of learning, and yet we become increasingly aware that there’s always so much we’re never told. The film’s visual identity is what you’d expect, given these priorities: eloquent but unstudied, functional, interested in faces but with perhaps as many distant cutaways of driving cars during dialogue than any film since Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. What matters is the time spent shoulder to shoulder with these people, listening and withholding judgment.
Hamaguchi has a gift for enabling us to suspend impatience, as his rangy conversations flow far beyond ordinary movie chit-chat—much like the trust-building workshop scene in Happy Hour, which rolls on unhurried for over a half hour. In Drive, intentional banter about the arts-fest and negotiations about driving with Miura’s cagey, self-effacing chauffeuse stand their ground as crucial life matter. We expect truncation, because that’s the get-in-get-out movie norm, but instead we unclench and settle in.
This wheel-spinning strategy all but makes up Hamaguchi’s other new film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a portmanteau in three parts running a mere two hours, and dallying on frustrated love like a 21st-century cover of Max Ophüls’s Maupassant anthology film Le Plaisir (1952). Again, though, Hamaguchi is his own yarn-master.
First, a makeup artist (Hyunri) regales a model (Kotone Furukawa) about a recent romantic connection, in indulgent detail. When the model subsequently corners her ex (Ayumu Nakajima) in his office at night, we learn what she has already figured out: He is her friend’s new object of desire. And then the fireworks start. Who’s telling the truth about who’s in love with who, and how unstable any of them might be, is up for grabs. In the second vignette, a college student (Katsuki Mori) is cajoled into trying to honey-trap a weary college professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) in his office by reading aloud a particularly filthy passage from his new novel; side-eyeing her, he sees what she’s doing, but the frame-up doesn’t go where anyone expects it to and spills out into a tragic denouement.
Thirdly, in a near-future when a virus has killed the Internet, an awkward lesbian (Fusako Urabe) in town for a high school reunion crosses paths with her old lover (Hamaguchi vet Aoba Kawai)—who, after inviting her home, admits that she’s not who she said she was, and that she was pretending because she also mistook the other woman for a long-lost friend. Other stories pour forth naturally between the two women, and identity becomes curious and flexible. Even in short form, Hamaguchi’s sensibility stretches and relaxes, even as tensions ratchet and hearts break.
A winner at Berlin, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy also backlights Hamaguchi’s deftness with actors—all seven of the leads etch out their characters in seconds flat, and then gently bend with the scenarios’ secrets and discoveries, as if they’re also learning about themselves. If Hamaguchi had made just one film in 2021, either one, this would look like his Elvis year. ❖