Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

Ryusuke Hamaguchi | 2hr 1min

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s international breakthrough may have arrived with his adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story Drive My Car, but 2021 also saw him release another feature film that slid under the radar a little more, shrewdly questioning the role fate plays in our closest relationships. Though Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy sees him turn away from using existing source material as cinematic inspiration, his love of literature clearly remains, as here he composes an anthology of three original, self-contained chapters, each one thematically and formally connected by the strange whims of a mischievous universe.

For Hamaguchi’s characters, accidental run-ins with old lovers lead to heartbreak, humiliation, and healing, and Éric Rohmer’s dense, cerebral writing style emerges here as a crucial influence in the long conversations that unfold between them, often lasting upwards of twenty minutes each. The fatalistic musings that mull around in My Night at Maud’s similarly emerge here in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy to offer up sincere meditations on our individual life paths, though in making this comparison, it is clear that Hamaguchi simply does not possess anything close to Rohmer’s cinematic stylings. Like Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is disappointingly bland from a visual standpoint, and downright ugly when it comes to a pair of clumsy camera zooms and poorly-lit car and bus interiors.

Instead, the strength of this anthology is built on its formal structure, and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy takes its entire run time to pay off on the connections drawn between each segment. The first chapter, slyly titled Magic (or Something Less Assuring), brings a pair of young ex-lovers back into each other’s lives through an unlikely love triangle – Meiko’s best friend, Tsugumi, is now dating her old boyfriend, Kazuaki. Tsugumi is unaware of this connection, and Kazuaki would like to keep it that way, though when Meiko confronts him in his office, we begin to wonder how much longer this secrecy will last. With old feelings rising back to the surface, the anger she held onto for years starts to fade, absolving them both of any misgivings and instead directing her resentment towards a universe that drove them apart.

“Our fate’s no one’s fault.”

As fate would have it though, this is not the last time her unrequited love will be rubbed in her face. Three days later, as Meiko and Tsugumi sit in a coffee shop, Kazuaki walks right past the window, forcing an awkward meeting between all three points of the love triangle. Meiko’s temptation to confess her love for her ex-boyfriend and destroy this new relationship is overwhelming, and Hamaguchi briefly leads us into her visualisation of how it might play out, but this alternate future was not meant to be. Recognising that to stray from the path that fate has set them would only lead to further misery, Meiko simply wishes them well, and is left to move on to her own lonely future.

The second episode, Door Wide Open, is named after the compulsive habit of college professor Segawa to constantly ensure his office is never closed off to those outside. When he fails one student, Sasaki, the boy’s embarrassment is there for the rest of the campus to see. When Sasaki sends his friend-with-benefits, Nao, to entrap the professor with erotic passages from his own book, still he keeps the door remains open, letting her voice bleed out. For Segawa, this transparency also translates into obliviousness though, as he remains ignorant to her advances. Even when he realises that she has secretly recorded their meeting and her passionate reading, his request that she sends him the audio file has only innocent connotations.

Unbeknown to Nao though, fate has played a cruel trick on her. Five years later when she encounters Sasaki on a bus, we discover that she accidentally sent the sexually explicit file to the wrong person, ruining both her and Segawa’s lives in the process. Though the connecting thread of fate is a little weaker in this episode, the titular “wheel of fortune” still has a part to play in dictating these characters’ destinies, this time tearing them down through their tiny, meaningless errors.

The final chapter, Once Again, may be the most formally intriguing of them all, though there is an odd info dump at the start of this chapter that Hamaguchi uses to set up a near-future, computerless society. This is ultimately little more than a contrivance to explain the disconnection between the two main characters, awkwardly swerving the film’s setting in a new direction. Still, for someone as nostalgic for her youth as Natsuko, this high-concept premise is effective enough as a personal obstacle, leading to her mistaking another woman, Aya, for her high school love, Mika. In one swift move, Hamaguchi subverts our expectations of a third, coincidental meeting between past lovers into a realisation that the apparent friends here are actually complete strangers.

It is here that we finally arrive at the “fantasy” in the film’s title, as Hamaguchi rejects the notion that chance meetings with old partners are the only way one might find catharsis with them. There is a hint of In the Mood For Love here as Natsuko and Aya role play those old schoolmates they reminder each other of, confessing feelings they could never put out there as teenagers. While the lives of those in the first two chapters were dictated by forces beyond their control, Natsuko and Aya defiantly conjure up physical representations of their past through the sheer power of belief, and create their own imagined realities where everything can be put right. For those who hold this unique power in Hamaguchi’s world of strange coincidences and cruel twists, fate is no obstacle to happiness, and catharsis ultimately comes from within.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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