Oscar frontrunner ‘Drive My Car’ plays Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Ryusuke Hamaguchi on the making of a masterpiece
What: ‘Drive My Car’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Where: Isis Theatre
When: Thursday, Dec. 16, 1 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
Few filmmakers have had a year like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2021. The Japanese writer-director released two uncompromising and acclaimed features that earned universal praise on the film festival circuit and from critics, with his “Drive My Car” now reaching U.S. theaters and favored to win the Oscar for Best International Feature.
“It was a big year for me,” Hamaguchi, 42, said through a translator in a video interview from Yokohama, Japan. “To be able to travel around the world with both of these films and also receive praise in this way, I’m very grateful. Yet at the same time, I feel like I have yet to know what this will start to mean to me until more time has passed.”
“Drive My Car” was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including best screenplay, while the anthology film “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The film, which plays Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings on Thursday afternoon and is Japan’s entry for the Oscars, focuses on a stage actor/director whose wife dies suddenly, soon after he has discovered she’s been seeing other men. As Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) throws himself into a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” which utilizes cast speaking different languages — English and Korean Sign Language among them — the process of producing the play and riding to and from rehearsals with his driver (Tôko Miura) slowly cracks open the man hardened and silenced by his grief and pain.
Quickly hailed as a masterpiece, “Drive My Car” has a three-hour run time that is uncommonly long these days and may scare off some casual viewers. But there isn’t a minute wasted in the film, an invigorating work made for viewers who want to use adult brains.
Some have compared its structure to a nesting doll for the miraculous way it continues to open up and expand in new ways as it progresses on its path to profoundly depicting the complexities of love and loss, performance and language and collaboration. It also includes, broken up throughout, what must be a complete production of “Uncle Vanya.”
Hamaguchi credits the success of the film to his cast and to Nishijima ’s lead performance.
“It’s really due to the power of the performers that these films are receiving accolades in this way,” he said. “I’m happy and grateful to have been able to draw something like that out of these actors.”
“Drive My Car” is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, but builds countless new layers on top of the relatively sparse story from the Japanese literary master (published in the U.S. in the 2017 collection “Men Without Women”). Hamaguchi’s adaptation expands on the text and brings in plot elements and characters from other Murakami stories.
Hamaguchi also brings much of himself to the screen.
Kafuku, for example, subjects his skeptical cast to a rigorous table-reading process where he asks actors to read their lines with as little emotion as possible. The rehearsal tactic comes directly from Hamaguchi, who always does this with his casts. Exploring his own process in the film reaffirmed Hamaguchi’s belief in its benefits.
“There wasn’t necessarily a change in how I think about performance by doing this film,” he said. “However, it deepened my confirmation that performance is really important to me. … Through that process, I realized that there is a closeness that happens between the character and the actor, there’s a close relationship that happens between them as you start to do that.”
Much of the film is set inside Kafuku’s classic red Saab sedan. That setting and state of motion, he said, was what initially made him see Murakami’s cinematically. Shooting in a car, he also noted, is a way to pack a lower budget film like “Drive My Car” with movement. He and his cohort of filmmakers in Japan, Hamaguchi noted, have had to scale down their films and focus on human stories as the industry has contracted.
“My generation and Japanese filmmaking has been left with nothing compared to past generations where there were a lot big budgets and all of these things that were set up in in past Japanese cinema,” he said. “We kind of have very little budget and very little has remained for us.”
Hamaguchi has found a growing American audience since 2015’s “Happy Hour” landed on the art house scene here. He is excited to see “Drive My Car” crossing over into the mainstream: “I grew up watching a lot of American films, so to see that there is a U.S. audience for my own films I’m very grateful but also surprised.”
He’s only begun to entertain the prospect of coming to work in Hollywood or with U.S. studios, though he noted he is unlikely to make a film in English anytime soon.
“I’m definitely not uninterested in shooting in Hollywood,” he said. “If that were to happen, I would almost be in disbelief.”
Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s new fall lecture series will run weekly from Oct. 20 through Dec. 6. The lineup consists of artists nationwide who will be spending one to three weeks at the ranch completing projects within their area of expertise and exploring new work in the studios.