Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
'Drive My Car' may have won an Oscar, but Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's second powerful and poignant drama of the past year is equally as masterful.
April 28, 2022
To watch films written and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is to watch people playing a part — in multiple ways. That's one of the key truths to features not only by the Japanese filmmaker, but by anyone helming a movie that relies upon actors. It's so obvious that it doesn't usually need mentioning, in fact. Nonetheless, the notion is as essential to Hamaguchi's pictures as cameras to capture the drama. He bakes the idea into his films via as many methods as he can, pondering what it means to step into all the posts that life demands: friend, lover, spouse, ex, sibling, child, employee, student, classmate and the like. Hamaguchi loves contemplating the overt act of performance, too — his Best International Feature Oscar-winning Drive My Car, which also nabbed its helmer a Best Director nomination at this year's Academy Awards, hones in on a play and the rehearsals for it in dilligent detail — but the auteur who's also behind Happy Hour and Asako I and II has long been aware that the art of portrayal isn't just limited to thespians.
Shakespeare said it centuries back, of course. To be precise, he had As You Like It's Jaques utter it: "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players". Hamaguchi's Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, his second film to reach cinemas in mere months, definitely isn't a French-set comedy; however, it lives and breathes the Bard's famous words anyway. Here, three tales about romance, desire and fate get a spin. This trio of stories all muse on chance, choice, identity, regret and inescapable echoes as well, and focus on complex women reacting to the vagaries of life and everyday relationships. They're about sliding into roles in daily existence, and making choices regarding how to behave, which way to present yourself and who you decide to be depending upon the company you're in. While Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy mightn't ultimately mimic Drive My Car's Oscars success, it's equally masterful.
In the first segment — dubbed 'Magic (or Something Less Assuring)' — model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa, 21st Century Girl) discovers that her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri, Wife of a Spy) has just started seeing her ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima, Saturday Fiction). She's told in a sprawling taxi chat, which makes for stellar early sequence, and then she grapples with her complicated feelings while musing on what could eventuate from there. Meiko also heads straight to her former paramour, which was never going to simplify the situation. Her mantle to bear: either remaining the picture of a supportive pal by failing to tell Tsugumi about her past with Kazuaki, or laying out their history and forever shifting the dynamic. It's a devastating tale in how intricately it understands the push and pull of bonds that splay in different directions, and how we hold ourselves in various ways depending on who we're with.
Next, in 'Door Wide Open', college student Nao (Katsuki Mori, Sea Opening) is enlisted to seduce Professor Sagawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Tezuka's Barbara) as part of a revenge plan by her lover Sasaki (Shouma Kai, Signal 100). She's forced into the part — which blatantly requires her to play a part — by the entitled Sasaki, all because the professor won't give him a passing grade. Nao is married, adding further shades to the roles she's inhabiting at any given time. She's also wholly uncomfortable with the position that her boyfriend has placed her in, but it still leads to authentic connections and revelations. Another of Hamaguchi's strong and frequently repeated truths: that the pretences we all sport, for whatever reasons we adopt them in any particular circumstances, are often barriers to genuine emotions and attachments.
Finally, in a world where the internet has been eradicated due to a virus — making third chapter 'Once Again' a piece of science fiction, too, and as quietly fantastical as the feature gets — Natsuko (Fusako Urabe, Voices in the Wind) and Nana (Aoba Kawai, Marriage with a Large Age Gap) cross paths. The former has returned home to attend her high-school reunion, bumping into the latter within moments of getting off the train, with the two women instantly thinking that they were classmates decades ago. Thanks to the preceding portions of the film and also Hamaguchi's filmography in general, it's instantly clear that this scenario won't be straightforward, either. Nana invites Natsuko back to her house, the two chat and reminisce, but neither is all that confident about their shared history in a segment that tenderly but candidly examines role-playing as a two-way street, and also deception as a social grace.
Hamaguchi's resume is littered with other obsessions beyond the fictions people spin to get through their days — to themselves and to each other, and willingly and unthinkingly alike — many of which also pop up in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Coincidence has a role in each of the movie's trio of intelligently and painstakingly plotted narratives, and destiny and fortune as well (as the name makes plain). The tangled web that romance weaves, and the sticky strands that represent alluring exes, also leave a firm imprint. So does seduction, and not always in its usual and most apparent form. All three of the picture's sections could stand alone, but each could've been fleshed out to feature length as well; as they exist, they leave viewers wanting more time with their lead characters. Commonalities ebb and flow between them, though, because this is a smart, astute and savvily layered triptych that's brought to the screen with everything that makes Hamaguchi's work so empathetic, warmly intimate and also entrancing.
On the list: a canny knack for domestic drama that spies the revelatory in the seemingly ordinary and mundane; a willingness to let dialogue guide each story, yet never by resorting to only speaking in exposition dumps or lazily telling over showing; and, to help with that crucial last component, piercing and haunting long shots by cinematographer (Yukiko Iioka, Listen to Light) in every chapter. Indeed, each portion of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy almost resembles a full-length film as it is courtesy of these trademark traits, which make the entire movie seem deeply lived-in. It should come as no surprise, then, that Hamaguchi's cast fares just as brilliantly. With the filmmaker's patent fascination with performance on full display, the restrained yet meticulously textured portrayals he exacts from his cast are uniformly excellent. They're more than that; in a beguiling piece about playing parts, and that makes the process of adopting a role its very reason for flickering, peering at its actors feels like peering at reality at its most soulful, insightful and also playful.