For theater lovers, 2021 has been a banner year to see our favorite shows on the big screen. Within a year, we had a lovely new version of West Side Storya loving ode to Jonathan Larson in Tick, tick… Boom!and many other musicals.

Many of these films feature in this year’s Oscar nominations. But I was delightfully surprised to see another theater-focused film so well represented. drive my car, a Japanese film about theater makers written and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, is in the running for four major awards: best film, best director, best adapted screenplay and best international feature film. It will likely win the International Feature Film award during this Sunday’s Oscars telecast.

While the film was a critical darling among moviegoers, I haven’t seen the same fervor for it within the theater community. But more theater people should rush to see this film, because drive my car is a truly deep meditation on how theater facilitates connection like no other art form can.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the film drive my car follows Yūseke Kafuku (a hulking Hidetoshi Nishijima), a Japanese theater director staging multilingual productions of Western classics. Yūseke’s dramaturgical process is idiosyncratic yet endearing; it chooses actors from all over Asia and allows everyone to speak in their native language. Thus, his sets speak Mandarin, Tagalog, Japanese and Korean in the same scene, with translations projected in the background.

Photo: Janus Films

Yūseke also has a strict adherence to a play’s text, forcing his romantic partner Oto (Reika Kirishima) to record the dialogue onto tapes. His unconventional rehearsal process involves driving his red Saab car while listening to Oto’s recorded voice and acting alongside him.

A tragedy soon separates Yūseke and Oto, and two years later, Yūseke is invited to direct Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. He agrees, but is surprised to learn that a theater festival policy requires a driver to guide him between his hotel and the theater. The driver is Misaki Watari (Tôko Miura), a young woman who also slowly reveals the depth of her own grief. The film follows the protracted rehearsal process of this production, as Yūseke gets to know Misaki and investigates her dedication to acting.

drive my car may seem like a tough sell to moviegoers. The film is three hours long and no matter what language you speak, the film requires subtitles. But these elements of the film, time and translation, transcend their logistical obstacles to become crucial themes of this metatextual work.

Hamaguchi uses a long runtime to his advantage, deftly structuring his film into chapters that each builds and mostly revises above. It’s like we’re watching a series of exquisite corpses: Chekhov started the game, Murakami filled it with characters reacting to Chekhov, and Hamaguchi expands the story even further. In fact, adapting to the subtitled translations also becomes a test that the characters in the film must also face. They all use the multilingual text of Uncle Vanya find new resonances within their family, their community and their past.

Cinema has had a complicated relationship with the representation of the theater industry and what it thinks theater might mean. For a long time, the theater was represented in a nihilistic and cynical way: it was like an endless substitute for the observation of life rather than its life (Synecdoche, New York), or a desperate PR plan for image-obsessed celebrities (birdman). Recent TV shows have cast a more positive light on the theater, finding redemption in its artifice. On streaming services, theater is now presented as a necessity for survival in a ravaged world (station eleven), or a crucible of reconciliation between friends and family (Euphoria).

The strength of drive my car is that Hamaguchi takes all of these possible meanings of theater, displays them next to each other, and blurs them together. Actors like the hotheaded Masaki (Kōji Takatsuki) and the sign language Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park) tackle the same storyline, but discover wildly different parts of themselves through it. As a director, Yūseke wants to be close to this revelation but can’t bear to experience it fully. “Chekhov is terrifying,” he admits in a moment of silence. “When you say his lines, it brings out the real you. I can’t take this anymore. Which means I can’t surrender to the role anymore.

It is this choice of the word to yield – a kind of contronym meaning both “to produce” but also “to surrender” – which defines Hamaguchi’s contradictory interpretation of theatre. All along drive my car, the actors engage not only with their characters, but also with each other. The film postulates that it is this restraint, this ability to give one’s own life in the service of listening to the other, which makes it possible to experience mourning. It is submission that allows us to bear what Yūseke cannot bear.

My hope is that theatergoers engage in drive my car, and surrender to its dense but graceful charms. Few of the last year’s musicals also ruminate on the theatrical art form itself, questioning the medium’s ability to engage the inner lives of theater makers. Hamaguchi is ultimately ambivalent about this dilemma, not viewing theater as fundamentally nihilistic or redemptive. Corn drive my car leaves a door open to the possibilities of this theater can to be. Perhaps it will take more time, and more viewers translating this film into their own memories, for this beautifully layered work to take on even more meaning.

Drive My Car is now streaming on HBO Max and available for purchase on all digital services.