In January 2020, a few weeks before his film “Parasite” would write an Oscar story, director Bong Joon Ho was in Tokyo to give an interview to a magazine. Up to that point on a very large press tour, Bong had sat conscientiously on dozens of profiles, but at least that offered a bit of intrigue: Bong’s interviewer was Ryusuke Hamaguchi, an up-and-coming director on his own.
For Bong, a Hamaguchi fan of “Asako I & II” and “Happy Hour”, this was a welcome opportunity to get things mixed up. “I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask him,” Bong recalls, “especially since I did a lot of promotion months and was tired of talking about my own movie.”
But Hamaguchi would not be discouraged. He was a man on a mission – “pleasantly stubborn and stubborn”, as Bong remembered him – and every time a playful Bong tried to turn the tables and ask the younger director a few questions about his career, Hamaguchi became more and more more serious and insisted that they only talk 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 fulfilled his wish: Hamaguchi, 43, is the man of the moment and Bong is very happy to pick up the phone and talk to him. Hamaguchi’s film “Drive My Car,” a three-hour Japanese drama about sadness and art, has become the most unlikely Oscar crash of the season, receiving nominations for best film and international film in addition to nods for screenplay and direction.
These happen to be the same things that “Parasite” was honored with two years ago, when that South Korean thriller won four Oscars and became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture.
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The 94th Academy Awards will be held on March 27 in Los Angeles.
“The ‘Parasite’ opened this very heavy door that had remained closed,” Hamaguchi told me through an interpreter this week. “Without ‘Parasite’ and its victories, I do not think our film would have been well received this way.”
Called a “quiet masterpiece” by Times critic Manohla Dargis, “Drive My Car” follows Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theater director battling the death of his wife as he makes a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima. . His theatrical company assigns a chauffeur, Misaki (Toko Miura), who transports him to and from work in a red Saab while holding up huge emotional reserves. Although Yusuke is initially dissatisfied with Misaki’s presence, eventually a connection is made – and then a confession.
“There are a lot of directors who are great at portraying characters, but there is something strange and unique about Hamaguchi,” Bong said by telephone from an interpreter in Seoul. “He is very intense in his approach to the characters, very focused and never rushes things.”
And although this seamless approach can lead to long running times, Bong felt that the three-hour run of “Drive My Car” only enriched his final emotional impact.
“I would compare it to the sound of a bell ringing for a long time,” he said.
Maybe it’s appropriate to build slowly the season’s journey to the film awards. Unlike “Parasite”, which came out of the Cannes Film Festival after winning the Golden Palm, the familiar “Drive My Car” (adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami) appeared from Cannes last summer with a screenplay trophy and a little Oscar. buzz. But after critics in New York and Los Angeles both gave Hamaguchi their top film award, the film’s profile began to rise steadily.
However, the road to the Oscars is full of many favorites who could not cross the distance. When I asked Hamaguchi why “Drive My Car” had turned out to be his invention, the director was at a loss.
“I honestly do not know,” said Hamaguchi. “I want to ask you. Why do you think this is happening?”
I suggested that during the pandemic, it affects 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 can not always be closed.
Hamaguchi agreed. “We are physically separated and yet we are able to connect online,” he said. “It’s about being connected and yet, at the same time, not being.”
To show what he meant, Hamaguchi recalled that 10 years ago, while working on a documentary on the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, he traveled to eastern Japan to interview survivors. As he lent these people a camera and his trust, deep buried thoughts poured out of them.
“After the interviews, I wrote down the words and realized that the ones that really shocked me were the words that were quite normal or ordinary,” he said. “These were things that these people may have already thought about, but had never thought of expressing verbally until then.”
The same goes for the characters in “Drive My Car”, whose inner races can only reach the surface when they find someone to trust.
“It is possible that when the characters say what they are thinking, the audience might think, ‘Oh, did they not really know that?’ “But it has to do with his journey to be able to get to a place to put it into words and to make that journey happen, it’s because someone is there to see it,” Hamaguchi said. “Someone who is there to listen has incredible power.”
And Hamaguchi would not mind a company himself, if only to help him process all these Oscar nominations. When I spoke to him last week, he was in quarantine at a Tokyo hotel after returning from the Berlin Film Festival. “I have not seen anyone, so there is no celebration for me,” he said.
As the Oscar nominations were announced on February 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, telling the story, he remains in a state of disbelief.
“To be honest, I do not think I will feel that all of this is true until I’re really at the awards ceremony,” he said. “No matter how much congratulations I receive, it ‘s hard to believe, especially when I’m confined to a cramped, small hotel room. “Maybe when I’m at the awards ceremony and I see directors like Spielberg there, reality can strike.”
Bong was less disappointed with Hamaguchi’s candidacy. “I knew ‘Drive My Car’ was a great movie and I was not surprised,” he said. “And since the academy has been showing 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 not believe it’s been two years,” Bong thought – but he refused to give Hamaguchi advice on how to navigate the night.
“I’m sure it will go well,” Bong said. “He is someone who looks like an ancient stone – he has a very strong center.”
Instead, Bong extended a request. When they first met in Tokyo and again last year during a discussion at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea, there was not much time for the two men to hang out. “So this year, I hope we can be together in either Seoul or Tokyo and have a delicious meal,” Bong said. And after the Oscars, they would definitely have a lot of notes to compare.
Hamaguchi was willing to accept the invitation. “I’m really glad to hear that,” he said, although he warned that Bong might not like the topic of the dinner discussion. I want to keep asking him until he gets bored of asking! “
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