In January 2020, just weeks before his movie “Parasite” was set to make Oscar history, director Bong Joon Ho was in Tokyo for a magazine interview. At that point in what had become a very lengthy press tour, Bong had dutifully sat for dozens of profiles, but this one offered at least a bit of intrigue: Bong’s interviewer was Ryusuke Hamaguchi, a rising director in his own right.
For Bong, a fan of Hamaguchi’s films “Asako I & II” and “Happy Hour”, this was a welcome opportunity to mix things up. “I had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask him,” Bong recalls, “mainly because I had been promoted for many months and I was tired of talking about my own movie.”
But Hamaguchi was not deterred. He was a man on a mission – “pleasantly stubborn and persistent,” as Bong recalled him – and each time a playful Bong tried to turn the tables and ask the younger director some questions about his career, Hamaguchi became more and more serious. and insisted that they speak only about ‘Parasite’.
“I really wanted to know how he made such an incredible film, even though I knew how tired he was talking about ‘Parasite,'” Hamaguchi said. “I felt sorry for him, but I still wanted to ask him questions!”
Now, two years later, Bong has finally got his wish: 43-year-old Hamaguchi is the man of the moment and Bong is only too happy to jump on the phone to discuss him. Hamaguchi’s film ‘Drive My Car’, a three-hour Japanese drama about grief and art, has become the most unlikely Oscar hit of the season, receiving nominations for best picture and international film, in addition to nods for screenplay and direction.
Those happen to be the same things “Parasite” was honored two years ago, when that South Korean class struggle thriller won four Oscars and became the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
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“Parasite pushed open that very heavy door that had remained closed,” Hamaguchi told me this week through an interpreter. “Without ‘Parasite’ and its wins, I don’t think our film would have been well received in this way.”
Called a “quiet masterpiece” by Times critic Manohla Dargis, “Drive My Car” follows Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director grappling with the death of his wife while editing a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima. The theater company assigns him a driver, Misaki (Toko Miura), who takes him to and from work in a red Saab, while holding back her own emotional reserves. Though Yusuke initially resents Misaki’s presence, a connection—then a confession—is finally made.
“There are a lot of directors who are great at portraying characters, but there is something quirky and unique about Hamaguchi,” Bong said through a telephone interpreter from Seoul. “He’s very intense in his approach to the characters, very focused and he hardly ever gets things done.”
And while that unhurried approach can result in a lengthy playing time, Bong felt that the three-hour “Drive My Car” only enhanced the final emotional impact.
“I would compare this to the sound of a bell resonating for a long time,” he said.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the film’s award season journey is also slowly building. Unlike ‘Parasite’, which rocketed out of the Cannes Film Festival after winning the Palme d’Or, the intimate ‘Drive My Car’ (after a short story by Haruki Murakami) came out of Cannes last summer with a screenplay trophy and a small Oscar. fuss. But after groups of critics in New York and Los Angeles both gave their highest film awards to Hamaguchi, the film’s profile began to rise steadily.
Still, the road to Oscar is littered with plenty of critical favorites who couldn’t handle it. When I asked Hamaguchi why ‘Drive My Car’ had turned out to be his breakthrough, the director had no idea.
“I really don’t know,” Hamaguchi said. “I want to ask you. Why do you think this is the case?”
I suggested that during the pandemic it touches us even more to watch characters who long to connect but can’t. Even when the characters in “Drive My Car” share the same bed, the same room or the same Saab, there is a gap between them that cannot always be closed.
Hamaguchi agreed. “We are physically separated and yet we can connect online,” he said. “It’s that thing of being connected and yet, at the same time, not.”
To illustrate what he meant, Hamaguchi recalled that ten years ago, while working on a documentary about the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, he traveled through eastern Japan interviewing survivors. When he lent those people a camera and his confidence, deeply buried thoughts emerged from them.
“After the interviews, I wrote down the words and I realized that the words that really shocked me were the words that were very normal or ordinary,” he said. “They were things that these people may have already thought, but never thought to put into words until then.”
The same is true when it comes to the characters from “Drive My Car”, whose internal struggles can only reach the level of revelation when they find someone to confide in.
“It’s possible that when the characters say what they’re thinking, the audience might think, ‘Oh, didn’t they actually know this?’ But it’s about the journey to get to a place to put that into words, and to make that journey happen, it’s because there’s someone there to see it,” Hamaguchi said. “Someone who is there to listen , has incredible power.”
And Hamaguchi himself wouldn’t have a problem running a business, if only to help him process all those Oscar nominations. When I spoke to him last week, he was quarantined in a hotel in Tokyo after returning from the Berlin Film Festival. “I didn’t see anyone, so no party for me,” he said.
When the Oscar nominations were announced on February 8, Hamaguchi flew to Berlin; when the plane landed hours later, he turned on his phone and was inundated with text messages. Even as he tells the story, he remains in a state of disbelief.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’m going to feel like this is all real until I actually get to the awards ceremony,” he said. “No matter how many congratulations I get, it’s hard to believe, especially when I’m locked in a narrow, small hotel room. Maybe when I’m at the awards ceremony and I see directors like Spielberg there, maybe reality will kick in.”
Bong was less impressed with Hamaguchi’s nominations. “I knew ‘Drive My Car’ was a great movie, and I didn’t find it surprising,” he said. “And as the academy has shown more interest in non-English films lately, I expect the film to do well in the awards.”
His own Oscar ceremony was a whirlwind experience — “I can’t believe it’s been two years,” Bong mused — but he refused to give Hamaguchi any advice on how to get through the night.
“I’m sure he’ll do well,” Bong said. “He’s someone who is like an old stone – he has a very strong center.”
Instead, Bong made a request. When they first met in Tokyo, and again last year during a panel discussion at South Korea’s Busan Film Festival, there wasn’t much time for the two men to hang out. “So this year I hope we can get together in Seoul or Tokyo and have a delicious meal,” Bong said. And after the Oscars, they would certainly have plenty of notes to compare.
Hamaguchi was eager to accept the invitation. “I’m really happy to hear that,” he said, although he warned that Bong might not like the topic of a dinner conversation: “I’d love to keep asking questions about how he makes such great movies. I want him.” keep asking until he’s tired of me asking!’