December 29, 2021 – This is one of those deep, emotional movies built like an onion. As each layer is slowly peeled away, more of the underlying emotions powering the story are revealed.
It takes a long time to get there in this three hour long movie, but the journey is fascinating as it twists and turns with unexpected, sometimes shocking, developments. This is a very deep, rich movie, loaded with literary references and deep sorrow.
This Japanese movie is built around a stage production of Anton Chekhov's “Uncle Vanya” which is being directed by Yűsuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) in Hiroshima. Part of Kafuku's process is to listen to recordings of the play while driving. He arranges to live in a house an hour's drive from the theater in order to have time to go over the dialog in the play.
The theater company won't allow Kafuku to drive for the duration of the production, due to legal liability issues, assigning him a young driver, Misaki Watari (played by Tôko Miura). Kafuku objects, but she proves to be such an excellent driver that he soon accepts the arrangement. Watari doesn't mind listening the recordings of “Uncle Vanya” every day.
At auditions, Kafuku makes a couple of unusual selections. He selects a young TV and movie actor, Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) to play the part of the elderly Vanya, a part that most actors assume that Kafuku would himself play. When asked about this, Kafuku explains that he doesn't want to play Vanya because it would too emotionally taxing.
The other unusual selection is that of a young Korean actress who cannot speak, Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park). She speaks via Korean sign language, and is part of an unusual, multilingual cast in this experimental Uncle Vanya production. One night, Kafuku is invited to the house of one of the men helping in the production, where it is revealed that Yoon-a is his wife. He did not want to reveal the marriage to Kafuku before because they didn't want to unfairly influence Kafuku's casting decision.
Kafuku is invited in to have dinner, and he persuades Watari to join him at the table. She resists, then relents. During dinner, Kafuku heaps lavish praise on Watari's driving, saying it is so smooth he feels like he is floating. It is also revealed that Yoon-a had been a dancer, but stopped after a miscarriage. Being in the cast of Uncle Vanya has helped her, emotionally. Later, Watari thanks him for the praise
While early on, their trips to and from the theater were mostly quiet, Kafuku and Watari begin to talk more and more. During one trip with Takatsuki, who plays Vanya, Kafuku reveals that he was aware of his late wife's many sexual liaisons with other men. He said sex was part of his wife's creative process as a screenwriter.
During this frank discussion, Kafuku conceals the fact that he knew Takatsuki was one of the men who had an affair with his wife. Later, Kafuku reveals why he feels guilty about his wife's death. Watari reveals that her mother, who beat her when she drove poorly, died in a landslide. She later reveals why she too, feels guilty about her death.
A murder almost derails the entire production of Uncle Vanya, and Kafuku must make a painful decision whether or not to continue. He asks Watari to drive him to the place where her mother died, which is a long day's journey into night. There, Watari and Kafuku confront some very raw emotions. The father-daughter kind of relationship between Kafuku and Watari is partly because Watari is the same age that his daughter would have been if she had not died at the age of four.
All this happens in the production of Uncle Vanya. The lines from the play spoken by the actors often correspond closely to what is happening to the characters in the movie. This is a very clever screenplay by writer/director Ryűsuke Hamaguchi, and all the performances are convincing. This film rates a B+.
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