Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Stars: Kotone Furukawa, Katsuki Mori, Aoba Kawai
Hot on the (w)heels of Ryusuku Hamguchi’s crossover international success Drive My Car, the rising star of Japanese cinema presents a more modest but no less rich triptych. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an anthology piece, comprising of three tales of love, misunderstanding and happenstance, all of which hinge on the importance and erotic potential of words, and each featuring a bizarre love triangle. Indeed, threes abound in this deft and delightful film.
In the first segment, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)” a young model named Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) listens intently as her colleague and best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) tells of a rapturous meet-cute that may be love at first sight. Meiko is all innocence as Tsugumi tells of her romantic encounter with Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), with particular focus on the eroticism of their spoken communication. Tsugumi reveals she did not sleep with Kazuaki, but the intimacy of their encounter instead played out in the effortlessness of their conversation. The story takes a delicious twist, however, when it is revealed that Meiko is hiding a conniving secret, and the young Furukawa impresses greatly in a role that evolves quite unexpectedly.
The mid-section, “Door Wide Open” offers another potent triangle of evocative wordplay. Begrudging a professor/novelist who has held him back, Sasaki (Shouma Kai) coerces his casual sex partner Nao (Katsuki Mori) to catch the author in a ‘honey trap’, so that Sasaki can use it as leverage to get him fired. Nao plays along, and visits Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) at his office, where she reads an erotic scene from the professor’s successful novel in an effort to arouse and seduce him. The long scene that follows is a masterclass of balance and counterbalance, in which words both explicit and confessional have the power to shift dynamics at a moment’s notice.
Confessional words are at the heart of the final episode, “Once Again”. Here, a case of remarkable mistaken identity brings together tomboyish lesbian Moka (Fusako Urabe) with dissatisfied housewife Nana (Aoba Kawai). Misremembering one another by chance while crossing on an escalator, the two use the opportunity to roleplay resolutions to their respective emotional holdovers. Here, the important thirds in their triangles are absent, but the women take turns conjuring them into being by proxy. In the process, it is evident that Moka and Nana have begun forging their own connection.
With it’s modest sense of scale and lightly comic approach to chance and confusion, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy recalls the everyday miniatures of South Korean powerhouse Hong Sang-soo. Indeed, intentionally or not, Hamaguchi borrows Sang-soo’s trademark zoom-in on more than one occasion to underscore an immediate character reaction. Though each of these stories is inherently and explicitly tied to Japanese culture, the film shares an acute sensibility with Sang-soo’s slice-of-life fables. Consider the final scene of the first segment, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)” which plays out from Meiko’s perspective, only to sharply restart once she realises she’s played it poorly. It brings to mind the erase-and-rewind storytelling of Sang-soo’s masterful Right Now, Wrong Then.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is typified by extended takes. Long scenes often play out in real time. Near the start of the picture, Hamaguchi seems to deliberately conjure the liminal, night journeys of Drive My Car. As Meiko and Tsugumi share a taxi ride in which the latter tells of her magical encounter with Kazuaki, the skyscrapers of Tokyo twinkle by out of the car’s rear window. Hyunri is particularly impressive in this scene. Tsugumi’s storytelling is captivating and Hamaguchi goes many minutes without a cut. Here the power of words is entwined intrinsically with the power of performance. We’re so impressed by Hyunri’s naturalistic reading of the dialogue that the story’s surprise transition over to Meiko’s perspective – and Furukawa’s movie-stealing transformation – takes us off guard.
If there’s a performance here to rival these two, it’s from Katsuki Mori in the film’s middle segment. Trapping novelist Segawa in his office, she complicates and elaborates on the barely-sketched character of Nao that we’ve thus-far encountered. Segawa’s astonishment resonates with our own pleasure at watching Mori take hold of the character. Like Kazuaki in the previous segment, he’s a man caught off-guard by a woman confidently taking the upper hand. Though the dynamics between the two stories are very different.
This interplay between men and women in Japanese society is largely absent from the final story, though it does exist in the margins, evidenced anecdotally and in the negative spaces. Nana assures Moka that her life does satisfy her, but her tone and her later roleplaying betray a lingering sense of a life unfulfilled. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy carries a light sense of commentary on the balancing act between the sexes that continues to define Japanese modernity, and even points toward a progressive neutralisation in the country’s future, in which women take more control and the connotation of gender is removed from names.
Drive My Car is perhaps the more obvious powerhouse salvo, so it’s dominance in this year’s awards season is understandable. But Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is not an immaterial or even lesser offering. It may serve smaller portions, but they are no less nourishing. Resplendent with recurring themes, ideas and stellar performances, there’s no reason not to treat this as an equally impressive – and essential – movie from one of Japan’s most interesting voices.