TTwo years ago, while accepting the Oscar for first best film for a foreign language film, Bong Joon-ho said for Parasite, “Once you break the 2.5 cm barrier of subtitles, you will be greeted with so many more amazing films made popular .” If Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car becomes – definitely amazing – the second foreign language winner, it means that Oscar voters have overcome several barriers: not only the film’s own English subtitles, but also the various Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Korean sign languages protagonist, the widowed theater director Yûsuke, used in his experimental multilingual stage productions.
Over the course of this year’s awards season, Drive My Car has pulled a gear out of the foreign-language category to jump into the bigger conversation – despite a foreboding three-hour running time, a decidedly haughty tone, and the kind of leisurely pacing that allows for the opening credits to drop after 40 minutes. But his hug is the widest. Not only its polyglot setting, but also the canonical plays in which Yûsuke stars and directs – Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya – show Hamaguchi’s quest for the universal and deal with the greatest themes: sexuality as a creative force, the enigma of others, Grief, the ability to tell stories and act to transform trauma.
Perhaps Drive My Car’s greatest achievement – where there’s a breath between him and other heavyweight nominees like The Power of the Dog and Belfast – is how effortlessly he achieves it all. Yûsuke not only lost his wife, he also found out that she was having an affair with clueless pin-up actor Kôji; a double, amorous and creative betrayal. He returns as the director of Vanya, trying to get his multinational cast to grasp the inner meaning of their lyrics. Like Yûsuke, who is chauffeured to work in a red Saab by the taciturn Misaki and sits in the back seat listening to his dead wife recite the same lines on the tape, Yûsuke coaxes himself into opening up about the past. It sounds difficult, but – the different tracks of the film run smoothly in parallel – the feeling is almost reassuring. There’s an almost comical overlay to Hidetoshi Nishijima’s wonderfully understated performance as Yûsuke; the eternal passenger, stiff and blinking with passivity, who evades his conscience by refusing to take on the role of disaffected Vanya himself.
That kind of lightly carried depth doesn’t come easy. Yûsuke trains his actors by engaging them in mind-numbing line readings to better internalize the meaning of the words. These are apparently Hamaguchi’s own methods. And he, as a director, has done the same to nail Drive My Car: He’s worked through cruder iterations of these ideas about identity and acting, from his 2008 graduation project Passion to 2018’s Asako I & II. Parasite’s Victory in 2020 confirmed just one open secret for cinephiles: Bong’s genius, of which his film was just a highlight. But if Drive My Car won Best Picture, it would be a real surprise from an aspiring auteur filmmaker who exemplifies the exploratory nature of foreign language cinema.
Towards the end of Drive My Car, face masks appear unobtrusively in scenes. Initially I thought it was filmed in BC (pre-Covid) and they were an Asian thing. In fact, Hamaguchi has been shooting in part during the pandemic, and given their absence elsewhere, the masks appear to be an unspoken reference. And indeed, this powerful work is the perfect post-pandemic Best Picture winner, emerging with a calm realization of introspection and trauma. It transcends Twitter-false dichotomies about blockbusters in an arthouse with a total sense of immersion in its own purpose. In times like these, there is an art to keeping the engine running.