Now nearly six years removed from his 2015 festival circuit breakthrough, Happy Hour (2015), Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has rapidly established himself as a restless, probing auteur, dead-set on searching out new forms and ideas within the territory he has already staked out for himself. That film was, famously, a behemoth feat of cinematic duration, a deceptively low-key (though never dull) five and a quarter hour epic centered around the trials and tribulations of four middle-aged female friends in Kobe as they navigate friendship, love, and work in a world marked by near-constant disappointment and sporadic outright hostility. Among the great tours-de-force of ensemble acting in recent years, Happy Hour evoked the backstage psychodramas of Jacques Rivette, with their endless intrigue-laden rehearsals, particularly in its free and organic experimentation: the film’s script emerged from improvisational workshops that Hamaguchi conducted, a fact which is dramatized in one of the film’s standout scenes, a team-building seminar-come-Happening overseen by an enigmatic land artist. The vast episodic structure of Happy Hour was eschewed in favor of a bifurcated inversion of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) for Hamaguchi’s follow-up, Asako I & II (2018), a more linear tale of past and present loves with a pronounced metaphysical air and a thematic fixation on lookalikes, doubles, and doppelgängers. With his latest, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which just had its world premiere in competition at the 2021 Berlinale (where it won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize), Hamaguchi has returned with yet another distinctive work, a one-man omnibus that takes up a number of his concerns and signature motifs from Happy Hour and Asako I & II and updates them for these plague times.
The film’s opening titlecard announces its structure: “Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s Short Stories: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.” Divided into three autonomous episodes, Wheel borrows from (as Hamaguchi made explicit in a recent interview with Filmmaker Magazine) Éric Rohmer’s ’90s triptych Rendez-vous in Paris (1996). The first, entitled “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” tracks the boiling-over of a love triangle in which one of the parties is blissfully unaware. Model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and her art director best friend Gumi (Hyunri Lee) share a cab home from a job and dish about the exciting new guy in Gumi’s life—however, we soon discover that her would-be lover is Meiko’s ex Kazu (Ayumu Nakajima), which Meiko keeps under her hat for the time being. What follows is a brief yet headlong dive into the protracted aftermath of an intense romance, as Meiko oscillates between feelings of contempt and l’amour fou, weighing the pros and cons of blowing up a friendship to recover a past love or to simply live and let live. (This conflict is enacted and seemingly resolved by a virtuosically sly bit of sleight of hand on Hamaguchi’s part, in a long scene built around cafe two-shots punctuated with zooms that would be right at home in the films of Hong Sang-soo.)
In the second episode, “Doors Wide Open,” married Nao (Katsuki Mori) gets roped into her student lover Sasaki’s (Shouma Kai) plot to get revenge on a professor who flunked him, the Philip Roth-esque Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), by way of a honey pot wherein she tries to goad him into some inexcusable behavior by reading him a graphic passage from one of his novels. But the revenge plot runs ashore when Nao and Segawa wind up forging a semi-platonic bond over their respective neuroses and kinks, leading to another surprising resolution which is further accented by a gutting flash-forward that lays bare the impossibility of this desirous tale’s having a tidy, happy ending.
The third episode—the only of the three that wasn’t completed prior to Japan’s COVID-19 shutdown—riffs on a science-fiction conceit to properly move Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy into the pandemic era. Entitled “Once Again,” the episode begins with a text crawl clarifying that we’ve now entered a future in which a catastrophic computer virus has essentially led humanity to abandon the Internet altogether. (The only other time this is invoked during the dramatic action proper comes when one character receives a Blu-ray disc in the mail, noting that Video On Demand and streaming platforms are things of the past.) Two women at a Tokyo train station cross paths and recognize each other from somewhere or other, though at first neither of them can say from where. And so Moka (Fusako Urabe) finagles an invitation to the home of Nana (Aoba Kawai), where the two slowly but surely arrive at the realization that they’ve stumbled into a rare case of double mistaken-identity. What follows rates among the most moving scenes in Hamaguchi’s career to date, as the two women derive lemonade from the lemons of their reciprocal false-identification through an especially touching drama game. Ultimately, the two women each experience epiphanies of a sort through their playing at being old school chums—“It seems like a waste… Of the dramatic situation,” Nana notes before the game begins, as if telling the demiurgic Hamaguchi himself to intervene and make sure that a fascinating situation such as this one results in some kind of meaningful change for our mixed-up protagonists.
The thematic continuities across the three episodes are striking, but so too are their deviations. Where “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)” plays with the discrepancies between amorous fantasy and reality (wielding cinematic artifice to conjure a Borgesian garden of forking paths), “Doors Wide Open” manipulates our narrative expectations about how the revenge plot will unfold across the long encounter between Nao and Segawa until, following the film’s lone flash-forward, it resolves itself on a devastating, moving note. Finally, “Once Again” seizes a familiar sci-fi trope—the world after a technological apocalypse—and uses it as the stage for a dramatic exercise by which its characters search out lost time on the basis of their improbable meeting. Whereas the first two episodes pursue an investigation into modern ethics (and the resultant trials of heart) that evokes Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, the third concludes by locating a measure of self-assurance on its protagonists’ behalf by rendering identity as a kind of mask that can be worn and discarded as immediate human affairs require—auto-fiction as group therapy, almost.
The film’s title evokes Max Ophüls’s seminal Arthur Schnitzler adaptation, La Ronde (1950), though the tripartite architecture of Hamaguchi’s film, its structural refusal to be merely one type of film for very long, suggests a more surprising and dynamic ontology than Ophüls’s. The world according to Hamaguchi is everywhere shot through with both love and hate, destiny and chance, the real and the imagined—it is marked not by “magic,” but rather, by the aforementioned “something less assuring.” Less assuring, maybe, but no less fascinating or affecting for it. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy has subtly yet effectively redefined our not-yet-quite-set sense of what a Ryūsuke Hamaguchi film is, which of course makes the prospect of what comes next for him all the more exciting.