If ever there was a film that was better suited for online streaming than watching on the big screen, it’s Drive My Car—and I mean that as a compliment. Drive My Car, now streaming on HBO Max, is a glorious deluge of language and culture. Without the liberty to pause and rewind, the inattentive viewer will miss not only huge amounts of communication but quite possibly the entire narrative thrust of the film.
Drive My Car stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yusuke Kafuku, a renowned Japanese director who is learning how to cope with tremendous betrayal and loss. Kafuku embraces the idea that silence is golden and buries his grief deep in his work. He accepts an assignment to cast, direct, and star in a film version of Anton Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya. Kafuku’s spin is that the entire performance will be done in multiple languages: Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, German, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, and Korean Sign Language. The performers must undergo a tremendous shift in their rehearsal process as they can no longer rely on a shared language. Yūsuke tells them to focus on the acting itself, drawing from each other’s emotions and other nonverbal cues.
This direction mirrors the viewer’s experience. Instead of being able to use shared language, our attention needs to be on high alert, scanning facial expressions, vocal tones, and differing cultural cues—all while reading the subtitles. This unique exercise of the mind could possibly confuse English-speaking audiences.
A particularly exemplary scene is when Yūsuke and his driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura), are invited to the house of his translator, Kon Yoon-su (Jin Dae-yeon), for dinner. Kon and his wife, Lee Yoon-a (Park Yu-rim), are both Korean, but Lee communicates only through Korean Sign Language, which Kon interprets for the others. Lee has been given a part in Yūsuke’s film, and at the beginning of the dinner, Yūsuke asks Lee why she decided to audition, given her disability. Lee responds that she was originally a dancer but since having a miscarriage her body didn’t function the way it used to.
This is a big deal. People in Asian cultures tend to be emotionally guarded with strangers or among professional colleagues. Sharing a personal tragedy, such as a miscarriage, is not acceptable dinner table talk. It can even be considered rude to inconvenience honored guests with the burden of your personal problems. That Lee was so willing to communicate her grief through the auditory “silence” of sign language spoke volumes and added to Yūsuke’s own journey toward reckoning with his past trauma.
This beautiful scene represents a film best consumed on a streaming platform so you can pause, rewind, and resume at your own pace. Drive My Car reminds Christian viewers to value multiculturalism and to develop a posture of humility through learning, for the sake of loving God and neighbor. As Kon Yoon-su tells Yūsuke, “I learned sign language after meeting her. I wanted to know her language, so I learned it.” It’s a fitting exhortation for the people of God in a multilingual, digital world.