On the international festival circuit, which often sees a reliable and familiar group of recurring directors arrive with new films for the cinephile elite every few years, Japanese filmmaker Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has recently established himself as a bona fide household name.
His profile began to rise with the gargantuan “Happy Hour” (which, I must sadly admit, I have yet to carve out 5 hours and 17 minutes to watch) and continued with 2018’s “Asako I & II,” an unpredictable and thoughtful romantic drama that debuted in competition at Cannes.
I obviously can’t speak for “Happy Hour” or Hamaguchi’s oeuvre more generally, but “Asako I & II” compelled me with its contradictions. It offers a seemingly fantastical concept – one that’s especially intensified by the sci-fi-like musical scoring in its initial sequence – with shades of Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel in its doubled romance, yet it emerges as a fairly realistic and narratively (if not emotionally or thematically) straight-forward melodrama about love, desire, and how little control we have over those impulses. It’s a patient work that provokes a certain inherent curiosity in the spectator, though I found myself oddly detached by the end of the film’s rather lengthy journey.
Or perhaps I just needed some time to grow accustomed to Hamaguchi’s style and narrative approach, his blend of the quotidian and the emotionally revelatory, all existing within a dramatic framework that occasionally dips into genre territory. In 2021, Hamaguchi’s reputation as one of contemporary international cinema’s most significant directors is stronger than ever thanks to two banner debuts at the premiere European festivals: “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and Cannes screenplay winner “Drive My Car.”
Though the latter, which is set to debut in the U.S. in November, remains a hotly anticipated title that I’m sure will live up to its stellar early reviews, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is already quite the accomplishment for Hamaguchi. Without entirely resorting to hyperbolic statements to frame my praise, it’s really the best film I’ve seen this year, so far.
Structured as three short stories, running roughly 35 to 40 minutes each, the intrinsic constraints of this triptych present a challenge that the director solves with ease. The first short, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” follows Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and Tsugumi (Hyunri), who have a long conversation in the back seat of a car about the marvelous date that Tsugumi went on the night before. Shortly after she departs the car, Meiko goes to meet her ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) – who also happens to be Tsugumi’s new flame, a revelation Meiko quietly pieced together during their ride home.
In “Door Wide Open,” acclaimed literary professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) flunks Sasaki (Shouma Kai) and causes a major academic crisis for the young college student. Currently embroiled in an affair with Nao (Katsuki Mori), a married woman, Sasaki devises a plan for his lover to seduce Segawa – and ruin his life along the way. The plan seems foolproof, but an unexpected connection between Segawa and Nao kickstarts a totally different chain of events.
Finally, set in a near future in which a technological crisis crashed all computers and left humanity in a digital-free world, “Once Again” sees Moka (Fusako Urabe) returning to her hometown for her high school reunion. It’s a lonely weekend – at least until she recognizes Nana (Aoba Kawai), a woman she believes is her long-lost friend (and who also seems to recognize her). But is Nana the woman Moka thinks she is? Or, more pressingly, who does Nana think Moka is?
From this trio of synopses, a pattern starts to form. Each individual story starts from a conceit so simple that it almost feels inconspicuous. “Magic” begins with a car ride that takes place essentially in real time, allowing Meiko and Tsugumi’s conversation to become the central attraction rather than merely a vessel for starting the plot; throughout the scene, Hamaguchi alternates between close-ups on Meiko and Tsugumi and long takes encompassing both characters that go on for several minutes. There’s such a careful attention to the details of both Tsugumi’s story and Meiko’s reactions that, by the time Tsugumi exits the car to return to her apartment, the viewer isn’t fully sure which character they’ll be following for the rest of the story. “Door Wide Open” complicates itself with a prologue depicting the origin of Sasaki’s feud with Segawa, but it also gives the viewer a basic framework of concepts and themes for its initially perverse story: an affair, a deception, and a plot for revenge. And despite the sci-fi scenario that “Once Again” presents in its opening moments, the chapter is more immediately notable for its mundanity, for Hamaguchi’s portrayal of the isolation and solace that Moka finds upon her return home.
Steadily, each story reveals narrative, tonal and emotional dimensions that are much more complex than at first glance. Initially restricted from having much of a personality of her own in the opening moments of “Magic,” Meiko becomes the focal point as Hamaguchi focuses on her soured relationship with her ex. Though we’re technically just transitioning from one extended conversation to another, the tone couldn’t feel more different in Meiko and Kazuaki’s fight, with a striking sense of cruelty, manipulation, and honesty emerging between the former lovers. Similarly, while the failed seduction of Professor Segawa by Nao takes up a good chunk of screen time in the second story – and it’s indeed as hilarious as you might expect – Hamaguchi controls this scenario so well that it might take a moment for the viewer to notice that something in the scene has changed, that some connection has been forged between these two very lonely characters. The arrival of Nana is likewise the transitional event in “Once Again,” but there’s an even more specific genre and tonal modulation going on here: the sudden reveal of a kind of screwball-esque misunderstanding between the two women emerges not as a comedic detour but a source of heartbreak for the characters.
In each case, Hamaguchi deftly brings each story to a cathartic point, though the exact nature of that catharsis varies from story to story. Meiko shifts from fantasy to reality in a way that suggests growth; sometimes, it’s best to leave things in the past. Segawa and Nao’s mutual connection is rendered beautifully by Hamaguchi – he allows the characters to look directly at one another and at the viewer, making this unexpected bond something concrete and real. But Hamaguchi can’t let us off that easily: instead, he culminates this beautiful, funny story with a tragic misunderstanding that derails lives and leaves us wondering what could have happened with even the smallest of changes. However, there is a way in which this chapter’s ultimate narrative destination, set in a flash-forward years down the line, teases out a full circle return: maybe Nao will be able to craft a revenge plot of her own. Culminating with “Once Again,” we leave the film with two characters performing and acting out roles for one another, hoping that it’ll give them the release they never achieved in the past. But even in that moment of performing a comforting lie, remembering the smallest of real details is soothing.
This is truly the work of an incredible storyteller and a great filmmaker. In the wake of “Asako I & II,” it’s exciting to see Hamaguchi continue to explore certain thematic preoccupations, allowing for the emergence of specific threads in his formal and narrative style. Much as that film focuses on lost love and our uncontrollable relationship to past romances, all told within a framework that continually drifts between the otherworldly and the realistic, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” tells tales of lost chances and false promises, of the things we wish we could say to those from our past and the fantastical happy endings we imagine that could never come true. The trailer describes “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” as a film about coincidence – in fact, in an interview with The Film Stage that is featured in this film’s press notes, Hamaguchi notes that the Japanese title “directly translates into something like ‘Coincidence and Imagination’” This naturally rings true at every moment. Hamaguchi crafts a series of narratives almost solely composed of accidental encounters, happy mistakes, and missed opportunities; some send us on the right path, some bring a form of closure, and others destroy lives and send them spinning into new directions.
Hamaguchi’s form is rarely flashy but always exactly right for the scene in question – understated and careful until it highlights and emphasizes a moment of beauty and connection. The director’s style has an astonishing ability to maximize the viewer’s emotional impact, to draw the spectator in through the most simple of premises and reveal something profound about these characters when we least expect it. The film moves from awkwardly funny conflicts to deeply heartfelt embraces, but there’s such a steady hand behind the camera that it always feels as if it’s all part of a cohesive whole. An essential part of the film’s cumulative effect is the classical music that flows through all three chapters. It’s difficult to attribute a single emotional state to the pieces here, in part because the score so clearly encompasses the film’s range of emotions. It’s gentle, joyful and upbeat, yet there’s the slightest hint of a kind of melancholic regret, a delicate balance that persists throughout.
Based on interviews with Hamaguchi, such as the aforementioned Film Stage conversation and this interview with The Hollywood Reporter, it seems as if the director always envisioned these three shorts together, rather than as separate projects that happened to merge. Amusingly enough, Hamaguchi mentions in the THR interview that he was “scared that maybe [he] was writing the same story three times.” In any event, the short story format here ultimately functions as a liberating limitation; temporally restricted to only roughly 40 minutes of screen time for each short, Hamaguchi works within these constraints to quickly locate the emotional essence of the stories. Though I’m sure it was tempting to expand some of these stories into full-length features, there’s something brilliant about “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s” status as an exercise in concision, with Hamaguchi achieving a balancing act of somehow never rushing the narrative nor wasting a second of screen time. But perhaps even more importantly, this is the rare triptych of loosely connected stories where there isn’t a single weak element: three stories, each equally tremendous in their own right, form a magnificent experience when viewed in conjunction.
This is a terrific film, continuously exploring unexpected elements from the foundation of simple scenarios, balancing precarious emotions with impeccable skill. If “Drive My Car” – a three hour-long epic that represents a major shift from “Wheel of Fortune’s” short story approach – is as good as this, we may really be witnessing the ascendancy of one of the great filmmakers of our time.
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” releases in select theaters on October 15, 2021.