Friends meet at a restaurant for a birthday dinner in the opening scenes of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Passion. Everyone loves the wrong person. Tomoya (Ryuta Okamoto) is engaged to math teacher Kaho (Aoba Kawai), but like the married Takeshi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), is drawn to post-grad Takako (Fusako Urabe).
Their stories unfold in a world of diners, small apartments, and taxis familiar to fans of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and the Oscar-winning Drive My Car. Shot as his thesis film at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Passion is Hamaguchi’s second feature. Though filmed in 2008, it only now opens for its North American theatrical run on Friday, April 14 at Film at Lincoln Center.
Ahead of its release, we spoke to the writer-director via Zoom about his second feature, the Oscars, and future projects. Thanks to Monika Uchiyama for her translations.
The Film Stage: What is your screenwriting process? Do you have the plot worked out beforehand, or does the narrative evolve from situations?
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: I don’t have the right answer for that quite yet. Screenwriting continues to be very difficult. I would say that were I to write something very detailed, that wouldn’t be very interesting. I want to enjoy the process, wondering what’s going to happen next as I write. So the writing itself is quite improvisational, and I try to preserve that improvisational quality on set as well. If there’s a line that’s kind of difficult to say or doesn’t feel right, the actors and I will have a conversation. There’s room for adjustment.
Here’s an example: the three men go to Takako’s apartment, where it starts to rain.
I wrote that into the script. It’s difficult for me to lay it all out, but it’s not raining in that scene. They just have umbrellas and we added rain sounds in post.
We were students; we didn’t have the technical ability to create rain on the set. Light rain’s not visible on camera, anyway, so we tried to create the effect through sounds and umbrellas.
But why did you want it to be raining?
Because I needed the characters to be close to each other. It’s quite hard for Japanese people to be physically close to someone unless it’s absolutely necessary. I wanted to create an environment where two people who are unfamiliar with each other become close. That’s why I decided to have it rain.
Do scenes expand or contract as you’re filming? I’m thinking specifically when Tomoya meets Kaho’s mother in a restaurant, and she tells him she doesn’t like him.
That scene is exactly as written, but I do recall that I made some scenes much shorter. The first scene in Takako’s house was quite long in the beginning. I think I cut at least ten minutes from that scene.
Did you think these characters were your peers at the time you made Passion?
They were modeled around people that I kind of knew, or people who were around me, or even myself. Whether I feel close to them is another issue.
You don’t judge or criticize them.
I think you’re totally right. Earlier I talked about how writing is a sort of process of discovery for me. That may have a little to do with it. There’s a scene where the characters play a sort of “truth or dare” game where they are tasked with telling each other the truth. That wasn’t originally in the script.
As I’m writing I’m trying to see what the characters will do. I had already decided that Tomoya and Takeshi would go to Takako’s house, and which of them would end up together. But I needed to figure out how that might happen. As a kind of exercise for myself, I wanted to know what would happen if they played this game.
I built their conversation to see how the relationships would evolve and how they would talk to each other. It ended up becoming part of the script. Of course I don’t think I was judging them as people. I was just trying to see how they might act.
You have a scene in Kaho’s school where she confronts her students about a death. She explores the philosophy of violence, concluding that “the only way to face violence is to accept it.” It’s a scene where it felt like time came to a halt.
This was my thesis film for graduate school. My teacher was Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and if you’ve seen his films you understand that he deals with violence in a way where he’s constantly showing us that it’s just something that exists in our world. I was quite influenced by that.
Of course, my films are more about day-to-day occurrences. Violence doesn’t enter in a graphic way. But I wanted to think about how violence is inherent in relationships between male and female. As a student I didn’t have the money or even the technique to incorporate violence in any sort of realistic way in Passion.
I thought this scene with Kaho could introduce the concept of violence that would be understood by the audience. And it creates a break with the latter hour of the film––it changes the audience perspective, changes a regular love story into something else.
That’s an abstract way to describe it. I’m curious about how you approached it as a director, because it’s a complicated sequence with tracks and pans and carefully composed close-ups.
There’s actually about a hundred cuts in that scene. And we had to shoot it in a day. So we had to have a very detailed plan for how it would play out. I’m reluctant to tell you this because it might change your opinion of the film, but we only had about ten students for the scene. Since I had to make it appear as if we had 30 students, we had to plan very meticulously to create that illusion. In addition, only one or two of the students had any acting experience, so I had to write it so each person could say a line convincingly.
The camerawork is very precise, like a shot of Kaho’s hand about to strike a student. The camera then pans slowly up to her face.
We had a lot of restrictions when we made that film, in terms of what we could do as students. I mean, we can’t just hit a child. [Laughs] There can’t be any suggestion of actual danger. So I had to think how I might create a scene which is equally effective as there being an actual blow––without actually doing that.
There aren’t any other scenes where the camera is actually controlling the actor’s movements. I think that’s the only instance where it happens. The truth of the matter is: it was something borne out of all the restrictions we had.
All the same, it’s a breathtaking moment.
Thanks. [Laughs] I wish I could tell my 29-year-old self that.
I’m curious if you had seen any movies that were a model or inspiration for Passion.
The first direct influence is Faces, the John Cassavetes film where the husband goes to two different women’s homes. Éric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris: you can see that in the final conversation between the man and the woman. Also, the five characters living out a situation. A film by Jean Grémillon, Summer Light, was a direct influence.
I also thought of Fassbinder, because of the way the characters torture each other psychologically.
You’re right. I would say Chinese Roulette in particular.
Drive My Car received four Oscar nominations, winning for Best International Feature Film. What was your reaction?
Of course I had a great reaction right after receiving this award. I was very honored. I have to say I don’t sense a reaction anymore. It’s been a year.
Are you still planning on making Our Apprenticeship?
I’m baffled by people asking me if it’s going to be my next film. I submitted a proposal to the 2019 Hong Kong Film Market and received a production award. One of the conditions was that the plot contained a play or production using foreign languages. I used that element in Drive My Car, which is why I don’t feel very motivated to create another film that has a very similar element.
That’s an Internet problem. Our Apprenticeship is listed on IMDb, so it will never go away. Did winning the Oscar make you recalibrate the way you work?
I’m curious that you use “recalibrate,” and whether I ever said that. I’m definitely rethinking how to make films. That comes with the general landscape in Japan, where it is quite difficult to make films. It’s not a very abundant landscape at this current moment. The only thing I can say about my next film is that I want to continue experimenting with smaller projects, finding discoveries that way.
Passion opens at Film at Lincoln Center on April 14 and will expand.