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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bong Joon Ho and Ryusuke Hamaguchi on Oscar surprise ‘Drive My Car’

The Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, center, receives an Oscar for his film “Parasite,” in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 9, 2020.

By Kyle Buchanan

In January 2020, just weeks before his film “Parasite” would make Oscar history, director Bong Joon Ho was in Tokyo doing a magazine interview. By that point in what had become a very long press tour, Bong had dutifully sat for dozens of profiles, but at least this one offered a little 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 chance to mix things up. “I had many questions that I wanted to ask him,” Bong recalled, “especially since I’d been doing many months of promotion and I was very sick of talking about my own film.”

But Hamaguchi would not be deterred. He was a man on a mission — “pleasantly stubborn and persistent,” as Bong remembered him — and every time a playful Bong tried to turn the tables and ask the younger director some questions about his career, Hamaguchi grew ever 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 of 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 gotten his wish: The 43-year-old Hamaguchi is the man of the moment, and Bong is only too happy to jump on the phone and discuss him. Hamaguchi’s film “Drive My Car,” a three-hour Japanese drama about grief and art, has become the season’s most unlikely Oscar smash, receiving nominations for best picture and international film in addition to nods for screenplay and directing.

Those happen to be the same things “Parasite” was honored for two years ago, when that South Korean class struggle thriller collected four Oscars and became the first film not in the English language to win best picture.

“‘Parasite’ pushed open that very heavy door that had remained closed,” Hamaguchi told me through an interpreter this week. “Without ‘Parasite’ and its wins, I don’t think our film would have been received well in this way.”

Called a “quiet masterpiece” by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, “Drive My Car” follows Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director grappling with the death of his wife as he mounts a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, Japan. The theater company assigns him a chauffeur, Misaki (Toko Miura), who ferries him to and from work in a red Saab while holding back vast emotional reserves of her own. Although Yusuke at first resents Misaki’s presence, a connection — and then a confession — is finally made.

“There are many directors that are great at portraying characters, but there is something peculiar and unique about Hamaguchi,” Bong said via an interpreter by phone from Seoul, South Korea. “He’s very intense in his approach to the characters, very focused, and he never rushes things.”

Although that unhurried approach can result in a long running time, Bong felt that the three-hour length of “Drive My Car” only enriched its eventual emotional impact.

“I would compare this to the sound of a bell that resonates for a long time,” he said.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the film’s awards season journey has been slowly building, too. Unlike “Parasite,” which rocketed out of the Cannes Film Festival after winning the Palme d’Or, the intimate “Drive My Car” (adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami) emerged from Cannes this past summer with a screenplay trophy and little Oscar buzz. But after critics groups in New York and Los Angeles both gave their top film award to Hamaguchi, the movie’s profile began to steadily rise.

Still, the road to Oscar is littered with plenty of critical favorites that couldn’t go the distance. When I asked Hamaguchi why “Drive My Car” had proved to be his breakthrough, the director was at a loss.

“I honestly 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 affects us even more to watch characters who yearn to connect but cannot. Even when the characters in “Drive My Car” share the same bed, the same room or the same Saab, there’s a gulf between them that can’t always be closed.

Hamaguchi agreed. “We are physically separated and yet we’re able to connect online,” he said. “It’s that thing of being connected and yet, at the same time, not.”

And Hamaguchi wouldn’t mind some company himself, if only to help him process all those Oscar nominations. When I spoke to him last week, he was quarantining in a Tokyo hotel after returning from the Berlin Film Festival. “I haven’t seen anyone, so no celebration for me,” he said.

As the Oscar nominations were announced Feb. 8, Hamaguchi was flying to Berlin; when the plane landed hours later, he turned on his phone and was flooded with text messages. Even now, recounting the story, he remains in a state of disbelief.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’ll feel like all of this is real until I’m actually at the awards ceremony,” he said. “No matter how many congratulations I get, it’s hard to believe, especially when I’m confined to a narrow, small hotel room. Perhaps when I’m at the awards ceremony and I see directors like Spielberg there, reality might kick in.”

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