This film is being screened as part of the 2021 BFI London Film Festival and you can find all of our coverage of the festival here.
Winner of the Silver Bear the Berlin Film Festival, Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy is the latest film from Ryusuke Hamaguchi and another demonstration of his unconventional approach to rehearsal and direction. The result is a charged, naturalistic and at times strange drama made of three distinct acts, all culminating in surprisingly gripping stories of love, betrayal, and hurt.
Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy consists of three short vignettes. In the first, ‘Magic (Or something Less Assuming),’ a woman learns that her best friend is dating her former lover and wonders whether she herself wants him back. In the second story, ‘Open Door,’ a revenge-driven honeytrap plot enacted against a professor backfires in a way featuring a number of ironic plot twists and an erotically charged game of verbal chess. Finally, in ‘Once Again,’ two women mistake one another’s identity following a high school reunion, in a world devoid of the internet or computers, and both take on roles in one another’s wish fulfilment.
Hamaguchi places great emphasis on the most minute of expressive details, the performers reading their lines together before filming in a way almost devoid of expression, before adding subtle layers of emotion. The end result is an almost effortless lesson in how to imbue characters with sensational depth, even when on an immediately superficial level they do not appear all that interesting. This detail, and how it is expressed through both direction and dialogue, makes for an intoxicating watch. A few moments fall a little too close to melancholy and cliché, but on the whole Hamaguchi steers clear of predictability, allowing each strange little story to evolve on its own terms almost devoid of outside influence.
Incredible levels of suspense are built up almost effortlessly. Hamaguchi demonstrates what a sensational talent he has for capturing expression, behaviour and emotion in the most compelling ways. He makes repeated use of key locations, be it for emotional impact or for more obviously stylistic reasons. The recurring use of a train station in the finale is particularly inspired, evocative of the return journeys made throughout a life lived to a satisfying extent. Every story he tells is done with a warmth about it, even when the stories themselves are rife with tension. It is a peculiar stylistic blend that comes off wonderfully.
Even the plot’s crazy coincidences somehow don’t feel out of place or unlikely. Everything is so gently, ingeniously grounded even when the conversations take bizarre turns. This is never more evident than during ‘Open Door,’ which reaches a crescendo with a diagetic reading of smut fiction and a following conversation between the professor and the woman who has been tasked with seducing him by a bitter ex-student. abstract conversations are far from alienating. Rather, they generate a connection between characters more genuine than—it is implied—anything they have had in the past. Inviting you to witness these moments first hand, the camera is always placed in such a way that you feel like you are in the room with the characters; a privileged outsider who in turn feels more connected to the characters as they build or rebuild their connections to one another.
Erotic dialogue, or more broadly discussions of love, underpins a lot of the action in a film where loneliness seems to be a key theme. It is slow, but never dry, and all the while Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy asks profound questions about the past, something that is as inescapable as it is something we have to let go of in order to be our best selves. In doing so, memory and relationships come under the microscope, never more obviously than in ‘Once Again,’ set in a world where a virus has forced everyone to live offline again, returning to the age of telegrams and letters. The way we are connected with everyone around us is key to Hamaguchi’s film, yet he doesn’t need to go to extravagant narrative lengths to explore it.
People navigate themselves through truth and lying, both deliberate and accidental. Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy is an intoxicating dive into this messy truth, one that rests on some assured performances and nuanced touches of genius from Hamaguchi. It is an unconventionally inspiring experience, and you will come out of the other side feeling strangely assured.
Words by James Hanton
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