Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, 2021.
Written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
Starring Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Shouma Kai, Fusako Urabe, and Aoba Kawai.
An unexpected love triangle, a failed seduction trap, and an encounter that results from a misunderstanding, told in three movements to depict three female characters and trace the trajectories between their choices and regrets.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s second film playing at this year’s London Film Festival, after his riveting three-hour drama Drive My Car, is a most fittingly unassuming of cinematic anthologies, where even the lofty, heightened promises of its title are downplayed in favour of micro human insight.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a tripartite compendium focused on the stories of three Japanese women, where Hamaguchi deploys deceptively cutesy, sitcom-y narrative setups that give rise to more thoughtful – and often, amusing – twists of fate, centered around cosmic coincidences and unexpected outcomes.
Episode 1, “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring),” follows model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), who comes to realise that her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) is dating one of her own former lovers with whom she has unfinished emotional business. With much of the story contained within the intimate space of a cab – not entirely dissimilar to Drive My Car, in fact – there’s a clear focus on the tactile nuances of friendly conversation which, in a more trite scenario, would soon turn sour.
But this first story establishes Hamaguchi’s desire to confound expectations, taking potentially dishy drama and transforming it into something strangely wholesome and humanistic. Even as further dramatic revelations pile up once the man, Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), is brought into the fold, the resolution belies its excruciating potential to deliver something far more disarming.
Next up, “Door Wide Open” opens with a student, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), unsuccessfully begging his revered lit professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), for a passing grade. Five months later, Sasaki convinces Nao (Katsuki Mori), a mature student he’s hooking up with, to help spring a vengeful “honey trap,” where Nao will attempt to seduce Segawa in his office while recording audio of the encounter with the intent of sending it to the press.
But Segawa proves to be extremely well-prepared to ward off any potential harassment charges, insisting that his office door always be left open to prevent the possibility. Yet there are many more surprises to come as the story hurtles towards its charged conclusion, revelling in the irony with which a single errant moment can change the lives of many. It’s funny and heartbreaking all at once, while rooted in the truth that a behaviour’s intent matters nothing to the uncaring void of the universe.
The third and final entry, “Once Again,” transpires in a low-key dystopian future where a computer virus called Xeron has disseminated everyone’s private information to their close contacts, resulting in the world largely going offline. Forlorn Moka (Fusako Urabe) couldn’t be much more euphoric when she bumps into Nana (Aoba Kawai), her high school lover from 20 years prior, only to soon discover that neither is in fact who the other thought.
The story’s brutal potential is tempered by the sweetness of the two strangers hanging out regardless, each using the other as a sounding board of-sorts to prevail over their unresolved pasts. It’s a fascinating concept that revels in both the playful and curative potential of performance, while also taking the opportunity to pass tongue-in-cheek commentary on our digitally-reliant present; in one hilarious moment, Nana laments that the tech shutdown means she can’t stream her favourite TV shows anymore and had to resort to buying physical media once again.
There’s no attempt to thread the three stories together in any tangible way, as anthologies often feel misguidedly obligated to, and they’re instead linked by their tendency to use surprising outcomes to capture the subtle nuances and eccentricities of human behaviour. Hamaguchi’s insightful script runs the gamut of emotions from gut-busting humour to bleak irony and genuine sadness, but the overall tenor is one of optimism.
Hamaguchi’s pared-down style may lack our typical conception of cinematic flair, but the simple, play-like staging allows him to get out of the way and just let the actors do their thing. Removing as many barriers between the audience and the cast as possible – aside from a few amusingly jarring stylistic tricks where necessary – foregrounds his pin-sharp penchant for human observation.
The actorly pairings in each story are remarkable, and while it’s difficult to single out any one performer among the ensemble, it’s clear that Hamaguchi has an impressive knack for finding the right conduits for his stories – conduits capable of holding our attention even when the shot-to-shot filmmaking is at its most rudimentary.
At a snug two hours, this is certainly less of a challenging sit than the filmmaker’s recent three-hour effort, and in being the holistic creation of a single artist, easily avoids the chief anthology pitfall of struggling to maintain a consistent quality or tone. It’s too nuanced to simply be a mere warm hug of a movie, but sure is a perceptive account of the often endearingly strange ways in which humans interact with one another – or perhaps, should interact with one another more often.
As Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s engrossing triptych indulges seemingly implausible coincidences and unlikely twists of fate, it also impressively teases out the inner humanity of its characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.