Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, ‘Guzen to Sozo’ directly translated from the Japanese, meaning something like ‘Coincidence and Imagination’) is a classic Japanese meditation on love, life and loss. Taking the serendipitous experiences between two or three people at a time, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi tells us three short stories in a superbly directed and paced triptych. His work won him the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize from the Berlin International Film Festival where it made its worldwide premiere, and continues its festival circuit with the likes of the New York Film Festival and at the BFI London Film Festival.
In the first part, Magic (or something less assuring), a woman (Hyunri) discusses a magical romantic encounter with her friend (Kotone Furukawa) in the back of a taxi, only for her friend to visit the office of her so-called lover (Ayumu Nakajimi) and convince him to fall in love with her again instead. Next, Door Wide Open follows a university student (Katsuki Mori) who is lured by her friend-with-benefits (Shouma Kai) to trick their professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) into a scandal using his prize-winning novel. And in the final story, Once Again, the world has abandoned computers and IT services after a universal virus leaks all kinds of sensitive information. Amongst the fallout, a confused chance encounter between two women (Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai) leads them to recover feelings lost to the past.
While not exclusively a female narrative, the women of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy are very much the spiritual and psychological compasses. They are also the more complex, conflicted and ultimately questionable characters as their actions lead them to misdirection, adultery, deceit, and masquerade; the men are mostly just lost, sceptical and impatient. The resulting narrative can be read twice over; the women may be trying to ‘save’ or understand their male counterparts – an old, well-trodden and generally acknowledged unhealthy venture – or perhaps they are simply trying to overcome them through seduction. But they may also be carving out a path for themselves in a world where they have to share the frame (literally when thinking of Yukiko Iioka’s cinematography) almost all the time.
In an interview with Rory O’Connor for The Film Stage, the writer/director mentioned that, after making his feature Happy Hour in 2015, he “realised something interesting about having woman protagonists; I write them to live according to their desires, to chase after what they want, it always clashes against something about society.” It is this subtle but deeply-rooted conflict that fuels the drama of these stories that are, for the most part, purely dialogue and blocking. By using minimalistic framing, colour, and light tones, Hamaguchi elevates his characters off of their backgrounds and truly exaggerates that it is only their own active development that can push them forward, and not their environment.
One thing is for sure: Hamaguchi’s heroines are anything but passive. In the first story, Meiko (Furukawa) realises the significant power in the relationships between herself, her ex-lover and her best friend doesn’t have to be used wrongly. In the second, Nao (Mori) learns that a dubious fantasy may in fact lead to fortunate friendships and self-acceptance, if it isn’t mishandled. And finally, in the third, Natsuko (Urabe) and Aya (Kawai) pursue an uncomfortable experience in order to fully realise what the kindness of strangers can fulfil. All of the protagonists overturn the intentions they begin with but, as Nao’s professor puts it, ‘words ask for words, which is different to what I ask for,’ and the final result is all the better for it.
In all three ‘episodes,’ Hamaguchi moves the camera to a straight-on head shot towards the end of each story. It is the moment that the characters truly connect with one another, push one another to accept the challenge they are each grappling with – and it is the moment the filmmaker speaks most clearly through the screen to those of us in the audience. I don’t pretend that Hamaguchi’s work is overly sentimental enough to be begging with the viewer to believe in themselves; he is merely stating, in as plainly and directly a way he can, that every person is a mess, and it is the work we put in to be good to others and true to ourselves that ultimately defines us.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is released October 15 in the USA, and premieres October 10 at the BFI London Film Festival in the UK
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.