The Japanese film Drive My Car goes to the Oscars with 4 nominations

Drive My Car, the first Japanese film ever nominated for Best Picture, breaks the mold of the traditional Oscar nominee. Even Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which two years ago became the first winner of Best Non-English Film, was less surprising. Parasite was an elegant genre film from a world-renowned filmmaker whose film had already won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Drive My Car’s path to the Oscars is, like the film, more winding. While Hamaguchi’s films – he also released the seductive anthology film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy last year – are acclaimed around the world, the 43-year-old filmmaker was much lesser known in Hollywood. Drive My Car won Best Screenplay at Cannes last summer, but the response to Hamaguchi’s feature deservedly needed time to build.

Drive My Car instead found momentum with critics who championed the film (New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups named it Best Picture of the Year) and a steady rollout in theaters. There was also something undeniable there. Almost everyone who sat down and watched Hamaguchi’s film came away deeply moved. Drive My Car may be a hard sell, but it turned out to be easy to love.

“Audiences respond to great movies. They do,” says Jonathan Sehring, the longtime IFC Films executive who released Drive My Car with new distributor Sideshow, along with Janus Films.

Still, Drive My Car is less of an anomaly than it seems. Series like small-screen sensation Squid Game have shown that subtitles aren’t nearly the hurdle they were made out to be. At the same time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, working to diversify its historically white and male membership, has welcomed waves of new international members in recent years.

Once distant cinematic realms have come closer together. Besides Drive My Car, a number of foreign films – The Worst Person in the World, Parallel Mothers, Flee – have been nominated this year apart from Best International Film. At the March 27 Oscars, these films punch way above their weight. In Best Director, Hamaguchi edged out A-list favorites like Denis Villeneuve (Dune). Drive My Car picked up twice as many nominations as Spider-Man: No Way Home.

“The fact that it’s three hours long also shows us that maybe times change, people’s receptivity changes slightly,” Hamaguchi said in a recent interview while quarantined in a hotel room at the Japan after traveling overseas. “I thought it would be difficult to reach a large audience because of the length of the film, despite the pride and confidence with the final product.”

Make no mistake, Hamaguchi and everyone involved with Drive My Car are still amazed at the film’s success.

“We all pinch ourselves. No, slapping ourselves is more like that,” Sehring says. “I would be lying if I told you that any of us thought it would have that kind of reception. But we were all incredibly moved by it.”

At IFC, Sehring helped pioneer the now common use of day and date releases, with films debuting in theaters and on video-on-demand. But he thinks the groundswell around Drive My Car could only have happened in theaters. There, it has made US$1.8 million (S$2.45 million) in ticket sales over the past few months, often ranking among the top averages per venue. On Wednesday, it began streaming on HBO Max.

“A three-hour Japanese movie was going to be very difficult. If it was released on a streaming service — and streaming services are good things — it would be lost,” Sehring says. “They would never promote it, and I’d be surprised if any streaming service acquired it except for our partners at Criterion.”

Hamaguchi says all he can do is be grateful – and can’t wait to meet Steven Spielberg and Denzel Washington. Hamaguchi has one thing in common with Spielberg. Drive My Car is one of six films to have swept the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. The others are Goodfellas, LA Confidential, The Hurt Locker, The Social Network and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

Some have argued that the Oscars risk becoming too “elitist” when movies like Drive My Car are honored ahead of the most popular. But there’s nothing elitist about Drive My Car, a film that, like Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, maneuvers to bring disparate characters together in an intimate dialogue about their lives. His film seems to be moving resolutely towards something sincere. Shot both before and during the pandemic, Drive My Car ends with its characters masked, as if trying to meet us where we are.

“There’s this higher, more present form of communication that takes place. It’s not possible with my normal self to have that level of communication,” Hamaguchi explains. “The act of creation really brings that authenticity to the fore.”

Drive My Car is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami and centers on a stage actor, Yusuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, directing a multilingual production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Still grieving the death of his wife, Kafuku leads the cast during rehearsals where the actors sit and read their lines flat, ingesting the language for days before performing it.

Hamaguchi uses the same approach with his casts. The effect that Drive My Car creates, he believes, begins with his connection and that of his actors within.

“In every piece we create, it’s important for us to connect with ourselves first. To create something great, we have to open up first,” says Hamaguchi. “This creative process, in itself, is like authentic communication.”

As he speaks, it’s easy to get the impression that’s why Hamaguchi makes movies — that the connection his characters seek is also what he is. “That feeling,” he says, “is indeed something that sticks with me when I create a story.”

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