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[Only IN Hollywood] How a Filipino actor landed in Japan’s best foreign language film frontrunner

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] How a Filipino actor landed in Japan’s best foreign language film frontrunner
Perry Dizon costars in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 'Drive My Car,' a best motion picture – non-English language nominee in the Golden Globe Awards

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – How a Filipino actor based in Manila and Mindanao found himself in a Japanese film that’s now a best foreign language film frontrunner in this awards season is an interesting story by itself.

Perry Dizon, a stage, TV, and film actor who has worked with filmmakers from Lav Diaz to Brillante Mendoza, costars in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a best motion picture – non-English language nominee in the Golden Globe Awards to be announced in Beverly Hills this Sunday, January 9, 6 pm (Monday, January 10, 10 am Manila time).

The Japanese film made it to the 94th Academy Awards’ shortlist of 15 entries which advanced to the final round of best international feature nominees.

CAST. Perry Dizon, fourth from left, plays a Filipino actor in a multi-lingual version of ‘Uncle Vanya’ in ‘Drive My Car,’ a Golden Globe best motion picture – non-English language nominee. Janus Films.

Stirring buzz as one of the frontrunners in the Oscars’ international feature race, Drive My Car gained momentum when it was named best foreign language film by critics groups both in Los Angeles and New York.

Many other critics groups in the U.S. also awarded its best foreign language prize to Drive My Car, which won three prizes in Cannes last May – best screenplay, FIPRESCI prize and prize of the ecumenical jury.

The drama is directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi who co-wrote the screenplay based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most popular authors.

DRIVE. A director and his driver: Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in ‘Drive My Car,’ a best foreign language film frontrunner. Janus Films.

Shot and set in Hiroshima, Drive My Car follows a director, Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as he rehearses Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and copes with the death of his screenwriter wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima).

The film’s title derives from how Kafuku is given a driver (Toko Miura) at the insistence of the theater company staging Uncle Vanya.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Perry’s name in IMDb’s cast listing of this Japanese film.

When I watched Drive My Car – an absorbing, contemplative masterpiece that runs three hours – I learned why it features a Pinoy actor.

Kafuku is directing a production of Chekhov’s beguiling play that’s experimental and multi-lingual with actors speaking in their native languages – Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean and Korean sign language.

So, yes, one of the top contenders in this year’s best foreign language derby has Tagalog lines spoken by Perry whose character is named Peri Dizon. The international cast includes Masaki Okada, Park Yoo-rim, Satoko Abe, Jin Dae-yeon, Ahn Hwitae and Sonia Yuan.

I tracked down Perry, whose acting credits include films by such filmmakers as Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, Jose Javier “Joey” Reyes, and the late great Ishmael Bernal.

PERRY. Perry Dizon recalls how he landed a part in a Japanese film, ‘Drive My Car,’  that’s now a best foreign language film frontrunner in this awards season. Contributed photo.

Born in Lunao, Misamis Oriental in Mindanao to Pablo B. Dizon and Josefina Y. Pabroquez, Perry grew up in Maco, Davao de Oro, which he described as “a remote but developing town.”

After his anthropology studies at Mindanao State University in Marawi City, where he acted with the Sining Kambayoka Ensemble, he appeared in plays at the Gantimpala Theater Foundation in Manila.

In our email interview, Perry, who is based again in Mindanao, narrated how he landed in a Japanese film that has been praised as brilliant, beautiful and might even land in the Oscars’ best picture contest. The long-haired thespian’s adventure started in January 2020.

Perry began recounting his Drive My Car ride of his life: “I got a text message from Kristine Kintana, the film’s talent coordinator in the Philippines, asking me if I am interested to read lines virtually from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.”

“I said yes, then she coordinated a Skype session with the Japanese production.”

“By February, I had another Skype reading audition. I presumed that was a callback. In mid-March, a questionnaire about Serebryakov, the [Uncle Vanya] character I am auditioning for, was emailed to me.”

SMILE. L-R: Sonia Yuan, Ahn Hwitae, Park Yurim, and Perry. Contributed photo.

“The first draft of the script was already mailed to me. The Japanese team presumed that I know Uncle Vanya by heart. Of course, I have done that task [to be familiar with Uncle Vanya] after I got the callback.”

“Then, a global lockdown was announced on the eve of March 15, 2020. I was leaving Manila to fly back home to Mindanao but I never made it to the last plane bound for Davao. I was tagged as a locally stranded individual [in Manila].”

“One good thing was, my friend, Frannie Zamora ‘adopted’ me. And the whole Drive My Car project was no longer on the list of my things to do.”

“But in April, Kristine messaged me that the project was still on and she coordinated a Skype reading of the 17 questions which I answered a month ago in English and Tagalog. It must have been a way [for the filmmakers] to listen to my voice range and see my screen registration.”

“Then they asked me to submit a clip from my previous film with longer screen time of the character I played. So I gave them my seven-minute monologue from Enemy Within, shot and produced in Mindanao and was funded by QCinema.”

“In the household, I was secretly auditioning outside the porch by the garden. From time to time, the production management would email me about measurements, shirt and shoe size.”

“When I got the part or the formal announcement that I am on board, it was in April 2020 when the world focused on the word, Wuhan. I was informed by Kristine while I was in a lockdown in Manila.”

“I finally gained my freedom to get out of Manila on October 28, 2020 and fly to Japan, submit again for another torment and isolation but in style – the 14-day quarantine in Tokyo. November 11 was the day when we got our complete mobility [permission] to move around Japan.”

READING. L-R: Jin Daeyeon, Park Yurim, and Perry. Contributed photo.

“We took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima and stayed at The Knot the whole duration of the shoot until December 5, after the Hiroshima shoot wrapped.”

Perry shared, “The film was supposed to be shot in Korea as the first draft of the script suggested, but with the global pandemic, the script detoured [to Hiroshima].”

“But it turned out well and the delay allowed more time to strengthen the film’s structure, although the script was already a very powerful piece as it was.”

In Hiroshima, Perry and the cast rehearsed many times, just like in the movie. “There were lots of table reading and rehearsals like what we see in the film.”

“We see Kafuku juxtaposed as Hamaguchi. That is how I describe my experience with the film, where art imitates life and vice versa.”

He explained, “The characters in the original story were just Kafuku and his wife, Oto. It was due to the talent of the two, Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, who awesomely merged the two masterpieces, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Haruki Murakami’s Drive My Car, into a good ride of a film.”

“There wasn’t any character reference of multicultural people in Murakami’s piece.”

On where the filmmakers got the Tagalog lines in the film, Perry replied, “I think Kristine got the Vanya Tagalog translation from the archives at the Cultural Center of Philippines. But I am not so sure.”

Perry recalled how Ryusuke, one of Japan’s noted filmmakers and screenwriters whose awards include the Silver Berlin Bear for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, surprised him one time. “My precious moment with him was when he suddenly uttered to me, out of nowhere, ‘Mahal na mahal kita!’ I was stunned to hear that.”

“I said, ‘Oh, you know Tagalog!’ He replied that he has Filipino friends.”

Perry added, “During my online talk with him when he was finally introduced as Hamaguchi the director without the first name, he asked me, how do I see my character in the film?”

“I answered him straightforward that it has no arc. He said we can find it as we shoot in November.”

“So, during the shoot, he would message me through production management to look for a scene in the play that I think the character has a good reason for being.”

“And of course, I had to choose good highlights of my scene that he can work on in the rehearsals and shoot. But sadly, you are at the mercy of the editor. It is Kafuku’s game.”

“But I saw those outtakes from the documentary made by our producer shared with me a week ago, The Making of Drive My Car.”

Asked if he has appeared in Uncle Vanya in real life or plays by Chekhov, Perry answered, “How I would love to experience [performing in] a full-length play of Anton Chekhov.”

“My first Chekhov experience was as a member of the audience watching Three Sisters at the UP’s Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theatre.”

As for his experience shooting Drive My Car, Perry said, “I don’t know who else does this in films – cold and emotionless delivery [delivery of lines].”

“Hamaguchi’s process was a new experience. Such style of directing and approach was a breakthrough, though.”

Perry elaborated, “To avoid confusing the audience, Kafuku’s method of using multilingual style in his plays was already presented in the earlier part of the film, with the play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in German, Bahasa-Melayu and Japanese subliminally placed as a set-up in the first act of the film.”

“Like Kafuku, Hamaguchi also directs us, actors, in that manner. You hear the lines over and over spoken in zero emotion on flat mode until somehow, you memorize your co-actors’ lines, unaware that your body is adapting and reacting to what is happening in the scene.”

“You’ll be surprised when the body instinctively does its natural reaction when the scene is finally moved on stage and navigates naturally as the scene progresses.”

“Therefore, you find ease and comfort when you are with your co-actors speaking in Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Korean sign language and, for my part, Tagalog.”

Drive My Car is not Perry’s first time to work on a film overseas. “In 2019, I was in Slovenia with the team of Malaysian director Bradley Liew where we shot the opening scene of our film, Motel Acacia, in the snow.”

“And how can I forget Mammoth, which you wrote about in an article ages ago? We shot the film in Sweden with Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams and Marife Necesito, directed by Swedish novelist and short story writer Lukas Moodysson.”

Perry recounted how he learned about Drive My Car’s initial acclaim in the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

“I was glad to see Toko, Kirishima, Sonia, Ryusuke and Teruhisa on the red carpet and the premiere walk entering the cinema on Cannes Live. Drive My Car was one of the films presented earlier to the public. And that was it.”

“Until one morning during the last lap of the festival week when I got a message from Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel with a video clip taken from the balcony saying, ‘Panalo kayo, brother! And the director is thanking you right now!’ My reaction was, wow!”

On the raves and awards buzz that Drive My Car continues to earn, Perry said, “Colleagues here and abroad who are now fanboys and fangirls of Drive My Car always message me their updates about the growing acclaim of our film.”

“With a bit of delight and uncertainty, I just message them back: Europe is not Hollywood. Let’s wait for the Academy to cast their votes. But, still, the ball is round.”

“Back then, when we were making the film, I was this classic example of a clueless individual. I did not get the dossier on the production and co-workers. I only know them by names, departments and participation in the production.”

Perry recently heard that three other actors from the Philippines were also seriously considered for the role he bagged.

On how the film’s themes of self-acceptance and regret resonate with him on a personal level, Perry replied, “I had a big dilemma when, right after my anthropology years in college, I pursued professional theater and stayed with a theater company for 25 years, not minding what the future holds.”

“Theater work is all passion and pays just enough. My late father always asked whenever I came home for a vacation during holidays: ‘So, what’s next after the applause?’ ”

“I always had a ready answer: ‘Move on to the next play.’ Yet in the back of my mind, I am questioning myself: Will I ever regret this when I grow old?”

“But years later, now that I am older and still nuts, I came to be at peace with myself – this is my calling so go for it. Just welcome regret whenever it appears on your door, then recite your favorite movie quote: An artist is never poor!”

He was diplomatic when I asked him who among the Filipino filmmakers he enjoyed working with the most. Aside from Lav, Brillante and Joey, Perry has also been directed by the likes of Chuck Gutierrez and Raymund Ribay Gutierrez.

“That is tough a question,” he parried. “I am always passionate in every collaboration I engage with, whether he’s tagged by our film community as a master director or a budding filmmaker.”

TABLE READ. L-R sitting at table: Jin Daeyeon, Perry, and Ahn Hwitae. Contributed photo.

“But then, every storyteller has his own style and work mode. Every production has its uniqueness and management in running an organization, so you have to fit into each production’s situation to enjoy every moment that you are with your teammates.”

Perry, who has experience in various facets of filmmaking, from production to art design, is now also a director himself.

He said, “I’m working on my documentary-narrative, Beneath the Multicolored Summer Sky, now submitted to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts with my team, including Julliene Ilagan from Cagayan De Oro, who is my producer and co-writer.”

“And Arnel Barbarona, my point man who is based in Nabunturan, Davao de Oro, who did a lot of post-production work for the project, from sound engineering, color grading to music score. All from the river and valley of gold.”

Perry shared a moving anecdote about his final day of filming Drive My Car.

“When my last day of work was shot – the Uncle Vanya play with an invited audience, a traditional wrap party and gift-giving was held for the outgoing actors, a practice in Japanese film productions which I was not aware of.”

“I was the first one to accept the gift and do a speech. To make a long story short, being unprepared, I didn’t know what to say and I was groping for words.”

“But the moment I recovered, words were just pouring out of my mouth. In tears, I uttered, ‘This is one of the most important films of the 21st Century. I believe this opus will go beyond its time and be studied by filmmakers, film and drama schools and actors for the next 100 years.’ ”

“I had no expectations when I got on board. I did not even Google Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s name and his achievements.”

“But as I went through his process, I discovered a genius and brilliant artist. It was not surprising that these young creative crew members were all so passionate in their work and very respectful on and off the work areas.”

“Because they knew that they were working with a young master filmmaker in the making. True, great talent. I am honored and humbled to be part of this chance of a lifetime.”

On January 9, at the Golden Globes to be held at The Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom, we will find out how Drive My Car’s awards season journey continues. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.