Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Review: Playing With Romance

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Since his “Happy Hour” in 2015, gay Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi has quickly become a star of the international festival circuit. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is one of two films he made during the pandemic and premiered this year. (The other, “Drive My Car,” also had a local premiere at the New York Film Festival and will debut at the Film Forum next month.) Extreme length was one of the tools in the kit. Hamaguchi, and it helped him stand out. “Happy Hour” lasted over five hours, while “Drive My Car” lasts three hours. But “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is actually a collection of three 40-minute short films not directly related to each other. The opening titles describe them as “The Short Stories of Ryusuke Hamaguchi”, and it was originally planned to incorporate seven short films.

The film begins with “Magic: Or Something Less Assuring”, in which model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) has a long conversation with a friend in the back seat of a car. She realizes that her friend’s new boyfriend, Kazuaki (Ayura Nakajima), is actually her ex and goes to her office to sort things out. “Door Wide Open” interprets a drama on campus, in which a young man who gets angry with Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), an acclaimed novelist, for a failure, convinces Nao (Katsuki Mori), a woman with whom he casually sleeps, recording themselves flirting with him in the hope that he will say something inappropriate and outrageous. “Once Again” begins with a sci-fi vanity in the background: In 2019, a new form of computer virus caused so much damage that the internet has become unusable and people are communicating by mail again. In town to attend her high school reunion, lesbian Nana (Aoba Kawai) meets her girlfriend from 20 years ago, Moka (Fusako Urabe)… at least that’s what she thinks.

The uncluttered quality of “Once Again” is a subtle reminder of when it was filmed. South Korean director Hong Sangsoo seems to have an influence on the fragmented feel and slightly curdled relationship drama, even though his style is quite different from Hamaguchi’s. But “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” takes place in isolated and largely empty spaces with two people interacting at the same time. The exteriors of “Once Again” are so deserted that it seems quite strange, even if the actual events are mild. This is the only part of “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” made after the start of the pandemic.

Hamaguchi changes his tone with each short as if he is actually rolling a wheel, but the film has a consistent sensibility. It comes down to the role play inherent in relationships, especially when romantic and sexual desire intermingle in situations where they were not expected. Moreover, chance alters all the plans of its characters, even their own visions of their desires. The plot of “Once Again” makes a slight stab at the Byzantine exchange of characters in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy”. The second short plays against binary expectations of a female empowerment story or anti-#metoo backlash phrase. If the premise suggests David Mamet’s play and film “Oleanna,” Hamaugchi is kinder to all of his characters. But Nao jumps on his assigned role as a token of exchange between two men, his imaginary life proving to be just as active as the sex detailed in Professor Segawa’s novel. In a press release, Hamaguchi describes his interest in female characters, which have been the subject of his last three feature films: “But I think, after working onHappy Hour ‘, I did something interesting about having women protagonists; I write to them to live according to their desires, to run after what they want, it always comes up against something in society.

To some extent, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” plays on age-old romantic tropes, especially the lingering legacy of old relationships. But while they rely on plot twists and character twists, these never feel like rough times. Hamaguchi uses them to take his stories in unexpected but believable directions. While the stakes are sometimes high, the film remains discreet and grounded. The closure with “Once Again” brings “Wheel of Fortune” to an optimistic conclusion: while its characters’ identities may be up for grabs, their emotional closure is tender and real. “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is a humble heartbreaker.

THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE AND FANTASY | Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi | In Japanese with English subtitles | Cinematographic movement | Opening October 15e at the Cinema Forum


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