At a tense moment of drive my car— the film that took Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi from festival circuit darling to four-time Academy Award nominee, including Best Picture and Best Director — one of the film’s main characters, a director himself, is faced with an incipient rebellion on his part cast. He puts on a multilingual theatrical production of Anton Chekhov Uncle Vanya, and as the actors struggle to guess his intentions during the last of a series of tableau readings, he asks them to simply focus on the words in front of them. “We are not robots”, the actress playing rebels Sonya. How are we supposed to do better if we don’t know what you want? “You don’t have to do better,” replies the director. “Just read the text.
This exchange, a version of which also appears in Hamaguchi’s book Asako I & II, is as close to a mission statement as this unassuming master. Her films, four of which are now available to stream in the United States, vary widely in subject matter and tone – from a sprawling melodrama about middle-aged women to a sci-fi short in which a virus has brought society in the pre-internet era – but they share an understanding that emotion doesn’t need to be on screen to be felt by the viewer. Hamaguchi’s characters are often driven to despair, but they rarely shed as much as a tear, though it’s probably no coincidence that his international breakthrough is the exception to that rule. Although his films are not all as long as three hours drive my car-both Asako I & II and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy arrive at two tidy o’clock, while happy hour is longer than those films combined – they all move at an equally measured pace, allowing us to settle into the journey rather than focus on where it’s headed. The world seems to have stopped, whether we’re living in a real-time moment or moving forward years to years, and when it starts again, we’re not quite where we started.
Here is a brief guide to Hamaguchi movies you can watch at home.
drive my car
Loosely based on a trio of stories by Haruki Murakami from the collection men without women, drive my car has racked up accolades since its Cannes debut last year, including Best Picture honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics – the first time this trifecta winner was made by a film that is not in English. The story centers on Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director who channels the grief of his wife’s sudden death into a production of Uncle Vanya, but even if the film is full of melancholy, there is also a subtle playfulness, illustrated more succinctly by the fact that the opening credits are 40 minutes long. Kafuku’s process, in which the actors – a multilingual group who all perform in their native languages, including Korean Sign Language – read the play over and over until the words are incorporated into their bodies, mirrors that by Hamaguchi, as well as his interest in blurring the lines between fiction and documentary. There’s a lot of drama in drive my car, and not just Chekhov, as Kafuku accepts the idea that his marriage died long before his wife. But Hamaguchi’s dedication to letting the story’s revelations develop through sometimes elliptical conversations rather than forcing them to the surface gives them a unique, slow-burning power, and he understands like few filmmakers how the front half a car can be the most intimate of spaces, part traveling confessional and part-time machine.
Where to watch: drive my car is in theaters, is available to rent for $5.99and since March 2, just started streaming on HBO Max.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
As remarkable as drive my car‘s many accomplishments have been, it’s not even the only great Hamaguchi movie released in 2021. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is as succinct as its pandemic-era twin is sprawling, a series of three short stories loosely united around the themes of, to quote its Japanese title, “chance and imagination.” Compressed into 40-minute arcs, the film’s segments highlight Hamaguchi’s ease with gnarly romances and erotic tension, especially when expressed in words. (Its characters love sex, but they love talking about sex even more.) Each story is full of enough surprises that I wouldn’t risk spoiling their plots, except to say that they’re mostly built around intense conversations. two of the kind Hamaguchi excels at showmanship, and none of them end up where you think they will.
Asako I & II
A recurring theme in Hamaguchi’s films is how the ghosts of past relationships can haunt us long after they’ve ended, sometimes years past the romances they represent. That idea finds its most literal expression in this 2018 film, whose title character falls madly in love with a mysterious drifter, is heartbroken by his abrupt departure, then picks up years later with a man who looks exactly like him. Of this quartet of Hamaguchis, Asako I & II is where the reserved acting style he favors serves the story the least well. As Asako, Erika Karata is enigmatic bordering on emptiness, staring into the distance when she’s supposed to fall in love at first sight. (To imagine Jules and Jim‘s Jeanne Moreau drained of her fiery brashness.) But as the plot unfolds, the inward-looking nature of the performance also takes on new layers. It’s like she’s gone through years of her life, to the point that she’s forgotten what true feelings are like. An early photo shows Asako and her drifting boyfriend sprawled on a road following a motorcycle accident, their faces placid as they stare unharmed into each other’s eyes. But they didn’t avoid impact entirely; it just takes a while to catch up with their bodies.
Where to watch: Asako I & II East available for digital rental and purchaseand with a subscription to the criterion channel, Mubi, Houplaand Kanopi. grasshopper movie Blu-Ray and DVD include an interview with Hamaguchi and his short film As if nothing had happened.
The film that first brought Hamaguchi to international fame is both a breakthrough and an anomaly. After making a trilogy of documentaries about the impact of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s Tohoku region in 2011, Hamaguchi was ambivalent about returning to the artifices of fiction. So he spent months running improv workshops with non-professional actors and developing a story about four Kobe women in their late thirties who come to terms with the state of their lives. The resulting 2015 film spans five hours, but for a film of that length, it’s particularly indifferent to its own length. Hamaguchi never tries to impress you with streaks that increase patience or make you bend under its cumulative weight. If anything, happy hour feels light on its feet, its length flowing organically from the situations it depicts. (By the time, in their fifth hour, a character steps forward to read a short story they’ve written, you know you’re going to hear it all.) A sequence, in which three of the characters take part in a Sunday after- lunch organized around the idea of ”listening to your center” and sharing a drink after, takes almost an hour in itself, but it went by so quickly and was so captivating that I found myself standing after midnight just to see how things went.
contrary to drive my carthat enjoys the sustained viewing most easily obtained in a movie theatre, happy hour can be dipped in and out almost at will. It’s the rare film that deserves to be called a novel, not because it has epic scope, but because it works through the patient accumulation of detail rather than building narrative momentum or the juxtaposition of events. It’s a way of saying don’t let its length scare you off, but also that once you start watching it becomes a moot point.
Where to watch: happy hour East available for rental and purchase through digital retailerseven though it is arbitrarily divide in three parties. You can also stream it for free with commercial breaks via Pluto TVand with a Criterion Channel subscription. (Note to the frugal moviegoer: a month of Criterion Channel costs less than renting all three parts of happy hour.) Kimstim’s Blu-Ray and DVD include interviews describing the film’s unique production process.