Why Drive My Car should win the best picture Oscar

Two years ago, accepting the first best picture Oscar for a foreign-language film, for Parasite, Bong Joon-ho said: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” If Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car – definitely amazing – becomes the second foreign-language victor, that means Oscar voters will have vaulted multiple barriers: not just the film’s own English subtitles, but the various Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Korean sign language ones its main character, widowed theatre director Yûsuke, uses in his experimental multilingual stage productions.

Through the course of this year’s awards season, Drive My Car has had a gear surge out of the foreign-language category to enter the bigger conversation – despite a foreboding three-hour runtime, a resolutely high-minded tone and the kind of unhurried pace that permits it to drop the opening credits 40 minutes in. But its embrace is the broadest. Not just its polyglot setup, but the canonical plays Yûsuke stars in and stages – Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya – show Hamaguchi’s aspiration to the universal, and dealing in the biggest themes: sexuality as a creative force, the enigma of others, grief, the capacity of storytelling and acting to transmute trauma.

Maybe Drive My Car’s biggest achievement – where there is air between it and other heavyweight nominees such as The Power of the Dog and Belfast is how effortlessly it accomplishes all this. Yûsuke hasn’t just lost his wife, he’s discovered she had been having an affair with callow pin-up actor Kôji; a double, amorous and creative betrayal. He returns to work directing Vanya, trying to lull his multinational cast into catching the inner meaning of their lines. Just as, chauffeured to work in a red Saab by the taciturn Misaki and listening in the back seat to his dead wife recite the same lines on cassette, Yûsuke is lulled into opening up about the past. It sounds heavy, but – the film’s various lanes smoothly running in parallel – the sensation is almost soothing. There’s an almost comic overlay to Hidetoshi Nishijima’s marvellously withheld performance as Yûsuke; the eternal passenger, stiff and blinking with passivity, dodging having his conscience caught by refusing to take the role of the disillusioned Vanya himself.

That kind of lightly worn profundity doesn’t come easy. Yûsuke drills his actors by engaging them in mind-numbing line readings, all the better to internalise the words’ meaning. These are apparently Hamaguchi’s own methods. And he as director has done the same thing to hit a sweet pitch in Drive My Car: worked through coarser iterations of these ideas about identity and acting, right from his 2008 graduation project, Passion, to 2018’s Asako I & II. Parasite’s win in 2020 only confirmed an open secret for cinephiles: Bong’s genius, of which his film was just a culmination. But if Drive My Car won best picture, it would be a true surprise from an emerging auteur, exemplifying all the thrill of discovery that foreign-language cinema is all about.

Near the end of Drive My Car, face masks start unobtrusively appearing in scenes. Initially, I thought it had been filmed BC (before Covid), and they were an Asian thing. In fact, Hamaguchi shot 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 from introspection and trauma with a calm realisation. It steps over Twitter-false dichotomies about blockbusters v arthouse with a total sense of absorption in its own purpose. In times like these, it’s art that keeps the motor running.

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