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Ryusuke Hamaguchi: Luck and People Learning to Live After COVID Losses Propelled ‘Drive My Car’ Success

"This story about loss and then also about how to live on after this loss, I think the story has resonated with a lot of people here."

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Gilbert Flores for Variety

The breakout success of “Drive My Car” is surprising to director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose film on Sunday became the second Japanese movie ever to win Best International Feature. The way he sees it, luck had a lot to do with it, as did the moment in which it was released.

“I really think it comes down to luck. I’ve of course watched the other nominated films, they were all wonderful. So it was a big surprise for me and I feel very much lucky to have won,” he said backstage through a translator after his win. “I think there is something about this film that matched with the change at the time that we’re living through, of course the coronavirus pandemic, and all the millions of deaths and loss that it has caused. This story about loss and then also about how to live on after this loss, I think the story has resonated with a lot of people here.”

“Drive My Car” was up against Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated Danish submission “Flee,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” (Italy), Bhutan’s entry “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” by Pawo Choyning Dorji, and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World” by Joachim Trier.

Hamaguchi’s film debuted at Cannes last year, where it won for Best Screenplay, as well as the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

It went on to win Best Film at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and the National Society of Film Critics. It also won Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and BAFTAs, and Best International Feature at the Indie Spirit Awards.

“Drive My Car” was also nominated for three other Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture.

“When I’m making a film, I’m not necessarily imagining a general audience. When I’m on set, I myself am I film viewer, I like to watch a lot of films, so therefore I have my own standards. In fact, i’m really thinking about my own personal standards and whether the filmmaking that I’m doing is meeting those standards,” Hamaguchi said. “The audience is almost myself, but at the same time, I think because this comes out of watching so many films, I have to believe there’s an audience out there for this film to deeply resonate with them.”

The film’s three-hour length has been a point of fascination when considering its popularity. Hamaguchi said that shorter edits of the film actually might have felt longer.

“I felt that this three-hour version actually felt the shortest. I think if I had made it shorter, I think in fact it could have felt longer,” he said. That’s the result of an edit that is fine tuned.”

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