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Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi won wide acclaim and festival prizes with his 2015 breakthrough feature, the bittersweet ensemble drama Happy Hour. But the nuanced, novelistic eye behind that delicately observed five-hour epic seemed to desert Hamaguchi on his 2018 anti-romance Asako I & II, which premiered to lukewarm reviews in Cannes. Happily, Hamaguchi seems to have got his mojo back with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a Tokyo-set triptych of contemporary chamber dramas. Each of the three plots is shaped by chance and coincidence, doubles and echoes.
Featuring a mostly female headline cast and a talk-heavy script, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is full of understated, melancholy poetry. Hamaguchi’s intimate snapshots of middle-class angst are unusually humane by the standards of modern cinema, frequently invoking Eric Rohmer’s warmly indulgent depictions of Parisian bourgeois ennui. World premiering online this week at the Berlinale, this portmanteau charmer should enjoy a healthy festival run and help restore Hamaguchi’s high standing in art-house cineaste circles.
Subtitled Magic (or Something Less Assuring), the film’s opening chapter dissects a tortuous love-hate triangle involving 20something model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri), who has unwittingly just embarked on a tentative romance with Meiko’s heartbroken ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima). Hamaguchi pieces together the chance-driven plot in leisurely conversations and angry confrontations, with Meiko forced to finally face her unresolved, stalker-ish jealousy over her old flame. A witty dual conclusion, bisecting the story in Sliding Doors style, suggests that a little discretion and generosity may just save us from our worst impulses.
In the middle story, Door Wide Open, embittered college student Sasaki (Shouma Kai) plans revenge on the former tutor who thwarted his career plans. Sasaki callously coerces his casual lover Nao (Katsuki Mori) into attempting a “honey trap” seduction of Professor Sagawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) by reading him sexually explicit passages from his own prize-winning novel. This tragicomic scheme backfires when both temptress and target end up bonding over their shared neuroses and self-esteem issues, but an ironic twist of fate ensures that their shaky budding friendship proves even more destructive than the original ambush.
The film’s final section, Once Again, was shot in downtown Tokyo during last summer’s COVID lockdown. It has a lightly sci-fi premise, about a catastrophic computer virus which has disabled most of the internet, Hamaguchi’s arch inversion of current pandemic restrictions. But this backstory only impacts tangentially on the cathartic psychodrama that unfolds between Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) and Nana (Aoba Kawai), two 40-ish women thrown together by a freak double case of mistaken identity. This accidental brief encounter proves to be unexpectedly fruitful for both, creating a safe space for a mutual outpouring of midlife regret and healing confession, which manages to be both absurdly contrived and oddly moving.
Favoring long takes, opaque resolutions and dialogue-heavy scenes, Hamaguchi’s modestly scaled domestic dramas demand patience, and will obviously not suit everybody’s taste. Some sequences, especially the erotically charged exchange between Nao and Sagawa, risk tipping over into unintended comedy in places. But on the whole, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy feels emotionally authentic and consistently absorbing.
Hamaguchi writes forensically flawed female characters with empathy and unsentimental honesty, ably assisted by his strong ensemble cast. Yukiko Iioka’s camerawork is unshowy but nimble, finding low-key lyricism in nondescript urban corners and slow pans through depopulated streets. Fragrant bursts of light classical piano music link these three stories, lending a timelessly Rohmer-ish ambience to their rueful ruminations on love, loss and longing.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Neopa Inc., Fictive LLC
Cast: Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Aoba Kawai, Fusako Urabe, Shouma Kai
Director, screenwriter: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Cinematographer: Yukiko Iioka
Producer: Satoshi Takata
Sales company: M-Appeal
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