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Signaling a shift, ‘Drive My Car’ rides into the Oscars

NEW YORK--Since the flurry of text messages that greeted him when he stepped off a plane in Berlin on Oscar nominations morning, Ryusuke Hamaguchi has had some time to reflect on why his film, “Drive My Car, ” has resonated as it has.

But he’s not so sure. There’s only so many ways to reason how a three-hour Japanese drama in which the opening credits don’t even arrive until 40 minutes in, can rise to Hollywood’s highest summit. “Drive My Car,” an emotional epic of grief, connection and art, is nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.

“The more I think about this, the less sure I am,” says Hamaguchi. “But one thing I can say is that this is a very normal movie. It’s about people who have all these different flaws each trying to have a better life for themselves. Loving someone or something is one way to do that. But when we love someone, one day you lose or separate from that person.

“It’s almost like an oxymoron,” he adds. “That’s sort of the normal aspect of this film, that it’s about the loss and gain of love.”

“Drive My Car,” the first Japanese film ever nominated for best picture, shatters the mold of the traditional Oscar contender. Even Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which two years ago became the first non-English language best picture winner, was less surprising. “Parasite” was a stylish genre film from a world-renown filmmaker whose movie had already won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The road taken by “Drive My Car” to the Academy Awards is, like the movie, more winding. While Hamaguchi’s films -- he last year also released the beguiling anthology film “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” -- are internationally acclaimed, the 43-year-old filmmaker was far less known in Hollywood. “Drive My Car” won best screenplay at Cannes last summer, but the response to Hamaguchi’s lengthy film, fittingly, needed time to gather force.

“Drive My Car” instead found its momentum from critics who championed the film (both New York and Los Angeles critics groups named it the best film of the year) and a steady rollout in theaters. There was also something undeniable about it. Just about everyone who has sat down and watched Hamaguchi's film has come away deeply moved. “Drive My Car” may be a tough sell, but it’s proven easy to love.

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

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

Once distant movie realms have grown closer. Along with “Drive My Car,” a number of foreign films -- “The Worst Person in the World,” “Parallel Mothers,” “Flee” -- scored nominations this year outside of best international film. At the March 27 Oscars, these films are punching well above their weight. In best director, Hamaguchi edged out A-list favorites like Denis Villeneuve (“Dune”). “Drive My Car” landed twice the number of nominations as “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“The fact that it’s three hours long also shows us that maybe the times are changing, peoples’ receptivity is slightly changing,” Hamaguchi said in a recent interview while quarantining in a hotel room in Japan after traveling overseas. “I thought it would be difficult to reach a large audience because of the length of the film, despite being proud and confident with the final product.”

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

“We’re all pinching ourselves. No, slapping ourselves is more like it,” says Sehring. “I’d be lying if I told you any of us thought it would get this 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 theatrically and on video-on-demand. But he thinks the groundswell around “Drive My Car” could have only happened in theaters. There, it’s made $1.8 million in ticket sales over the past few months, often ranking among the best per-theater averages. On Wednesday, it began streaming on HBO Max.

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

Hamaguchi says all he can do is be grateful -- and look forward to meeting Steven Spielberg and Denzel Washington. Hamaguchi has one thing in common with Spielberg. “Drive My Car” is one of only six movies to sweep the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. The others are “Goodfellas,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Social Network” and Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

Some have claimed that the Oscars risk becoming too “elitist” when films like “Drive My Car” are honored ahead of most popular ones. But there’s noting elitist about “Drive My Car,” a movie that, like Hamaguchi’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” maneuvers to bring disparate characters together in intimate dialogue about their lives. His movie seems to steer steadfastly toward something sincere. Filmed both before and during the pandemic, “Drive My Car” ends with its characters in face masks, like it’s trying to meet us where we are.

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

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

Hamaguchi utilizes the same approach with his casts. The effect that “Drive My Car” spawns, he believes, starts with his and his actors’ connection within.

“In each piece that we create, it’s important for us to really connect to ourselves first. To create something that’s great, we first have to open ourselves,” says Hamaguchi. “That process of creating, itself, is like an authentic communication."

As he talks, it's easy to get the impression that this is why Hamaguchi makes movies — that the connection that his characters are searching for is what he is, too. “That feeling,” he says, "is indeed something that sticks with me when I create a story.”