BASICALLY…: Three stories involving love triangles, failed seductions, and misunderstandings…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
With Drive My Car scoring four Oscar nominations, including a surprise appearance in the Best Picture category, the race among film geeks to catch up on everything director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has made is on. Luckily, it so happens that the Japanese filmmaker has another movie coming out, as though it were perfectly timed to match this week’s announcement, and so you can bet on Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy getting an audience boost based solely on that connection – as well as the fact that it’s also a pretty good movie.
Or should I say, “movies”, for the film is an anthology of three separate “episodes”, each with at least one female protagonist and centred around themes of coincidence and love, with Hamaguchi writing and directing all entries. How this review will work, then, is by reviewing each segment individually, before then giving final thoughts on how they all come together to form a formidable slice of singular entertainment.
We begin with the first story, titled Magic (or Something Less Assuring). Our protagonist is Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a model who, whilst in a cab home from a photoshoot, listens to her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) describe an intimate and apparently positive date she went on, only for the audience to learn that Meiko has an awkward, but entirely coincidental, connection to this new courtship. This story sets the tone for the ones that follow, for Hamaguchi establishes a smooth pace that isn’t afraid to take its time (the episode’s entire first act takes place in the taxi) nor swamp itself with heavily descriptive dialogue. With the twists and turns that it makes, there is also a strong element of surprise that Hamaguchi lets unfold naturally, and always so that it matches the underplayed, lyrical tone without going too overboard. As a three-hander, its trio of actors – also including Ayumu Nakajima as the guy in this new relationship – do well to keep their cards close to the chest, which make some of their revelations that much more of a surprise when they’re finally alone, leading up to a final sequence which is funny, heart-breaking but also strangely hopeful at the same time.
Our next story is called Door Wide Open, about a married young mother named Nao (Katsuki Mori) who is convinced by her friend-with-benefits lover Sasaki (Shouma Kai) to honeytrap his former professor, and now successful author, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) as revenge for derailing his career. Most of this one plays out like a strong two-person play between Nao and Segawa, with the former’s attempts at seduction – which include reading aloud a sexually explicit passage from his book – leading to unexpectedly emotional outcomes; both Mori and Shibukawa are great here, really showing their character’s individual vulnerability through carefully chosen facial tics, as well as their gentle deliveries of Hamaguchi’s dialogue which lends a real sense of warmth to the scene. You really do empathise with both these characters as they express themselves in surprising ways, making the conclusion to this story all the more devastating.
Finally, we have Once Again which, unlike the others, begins with an opening scrawl, explaining that due to an online virus causing a wide-spreading data leak, the world has gone offline and reverted to telegrams and the postal service to send correspondence. It is why Natsuko (Fusako Urabe), a shy woman in town for her high school reunion, is surprised to pass by who she assumes to be an old school friend (Aoba Kawai) at the train station, but a friendly wander to the friend’s house reveals an embarrassing mistake, but also a chance to make amends for both women. While the mild dystopian touch is an interesting one, it’s mainly just an excuse for this encounter to make logical sense within its own context, but regardless it does lead to some awkwardness that is certainly funny, but once we get to know these two characters there is also some underlying sadness to the situation. As with the previous episode, you do understand why these two people would be so hospitable and inviting towards one another, even if their paths ultimately do not cross the way either had hoped, and some touching moments of role-play open up some sore but necessary wounds so they both can heal to satisfaction.
Collectively, the three stories that make up Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy all have major thematic connections – love, coincidence and closure being chief among them – and tie together neatly as a result. Hamaguchi directs each of them with a sense of grace and poetry, as he did on Drive My Car, and his dialogue has all the makings of a formidable modern-day series of Chekov plays, with its two/three-hander conversations being some top level writing at its best moments. Only because it’s a full hour shorter than Hamaguchi’s newly Oscar-nominated three-hour epic would I prefer to rewatch this over the other, but with both it’s easy to understand the appeal of this filmmaker and his unorthodox storytelling methods, even if sometimes his work can be a bit too slow for its own good.
It’s definitely one to check out if you’ve already seen Drive My Car and are more than curious for an extra helping of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a tender and thoughtful anthology from director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, which across three interesting stories tackles themes like love and coincidence in a number of surprising, and intriguing, ways.