I have to say that Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a wonderfully enigmatic film from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. With cases of mistaken identity and double entendres, it’s unpredictable. Winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlinale earlier this year and Hamaguchi’s second release this festival, it absolutely must be seen in tandem with Drive My Car. Since Japan has recently announced that it’s selected Drive My Car for the 2022 Academy Award race, I can’t overstate the importance of Hamaguchi’s work: he’s one to watch very closely over the coming months.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a marked change of pace from this other festival instalment. It almost makes sense to use a musical analogy, as his films have been so beautifully composed and warrant the comparison. If Drive My Car is a sonata, told in chapters (with an exposition, development, and recapitulation), then Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy almost feels like a brief minuet-and-trio in three parts. Each is individual, but everything ties together into a larger whole. When you take a step back to consider his common themes and signature brushstrokes, it becomes a dazzling work, a labour of love from this talented filmmaker.
Guzen to sozo / Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Director: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Release date: October 10, 2021 (LFF)
The story is told in three chapters, which are superficially unrelated but tie into each other through themes of estrangement, connection, deceits, and sharing secrets. The result is a gorgeous patchwork that reveals more the longer and deeper you look into it. Never using more than three leads at a time, the narrative is spare while revealing so much about their stories in short interactions.
The titular ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ could be any number of things: a chance encounter with a stranger, a metaphorical game of Russian Roulette, toying with an ex-lover’s feelings. It’s a perfect image to stand in for the highs, lows, and unexpected twists and turns in life. The metaphor is also apt when it comes to the three leading women in the story considering the lot they have been given, the hand life has dealt them. Life seems like one grand game, with rules, winners and losers, and always has those within the film calculating their place in it.
Chapter 1 is entitled ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring),’ in which an unexpected love triangle occurs. It sees Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) catching up with her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) in a long taxi ride home. A model returning from a photoshoot, Tsugumi has just had a magical encounter with a man she’s met through work, Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima). As she reveals more and more about their encounter, it becomes clear to Meiko that Tsugumi’s new love interest isn’t the man she thinks he is. While the dialogue felt a little unnatural in the first section, it had warmed up by the second and I felt that the story had begun to flow.
In the second chapter, entitled ‘Door Wide Open’, an ex-student tries and fails to seduce her old professor, with both humorous and disastrous consequences. The story revolves around the enigmatic professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), a one-time teacher and now published author, specialising (bizarrely) in erotica and seeming very public about it. His somewhat sexually frustrated former student, Nao (Katsuki Mori), comes to visit and interview him, but the encounter soon leads to something much darker and more dramatic.
In a scene shot in a single long take, the lead performers captivate the camera’s attention, though there is very little movement or reaction: it’s a very strong minimalist scene. But, just when you think the segment has wrapped up and we’ve got a neat ending, the unexpected happens and serves to alter the course of both of their lives. It’s a fascinating way of making an otherwise static scene feel dynamic: the references to the past, present, and future aren’t lost here and are important in guiding the characters and informing their motivations.
In the third and final chapter, an encounter between two women leads to deeper revelations about themselves and their loved ones than they thought possible. Entitled ‘Once Again’, it’s saturated in nostalgia but avoids being saccharine: it’s too realistic and personal to feel contrived. The segment sees Moka (Fusako Urabe) return to her home city for a high school reunion. While the event is uninspiring, she finally runs into the woman she’d hoped to see, her old school friend, and the two strike up a conversation about the missing time and lost years between them. As the conversation deepens, it’s soon clear that these two share more in common than they suspected.
By the end, I could have laughed out loud for the joy and satisfaction that the final scene brought. It’s a pleasure to watch such mature characters easily slip back into a childlike state, years of heartbreak and disappointment melting away and miraculously de-aging them. The final scene is just so healing that it makes you want to watch it over and over again, if not to live it yourself. While the segment begins by grasping at the past, it ends by revealing that we carry our pasts, presents, and futures with us.
Although I watched Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy online, I would have loved the experience of seeing it on the big screen and encountering other people’s reactions. The scenes were as precise as if they’d been directed and choreographed for a stage play, the performances of the leading actors were so convincing that I felt fully immersed in the film world, even while watching remotely. Through every twist, you can see Hamaguchi’s directorial influence, gently guiding the players to search deeper for the best performances they can give. Like Drive My Car, winner of the Cannes award for Best Screenplay, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy carries the hallmark of a talented director and I anticipate Hamaguchi’s name in lights next awards season.