The ancient Greeks spoke of the Wheel of Fate: Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down, and no one can say when things will change. Writer-director-editor Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, literally “coincidence and imagination”) suggests that the Wheel is powered by our sputtering and unruly desires, and by the fantasies we concoct to try to make it all make sense.

Winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Wheel is a three-part anthology film full of incident, confidently walking a fine line between realism in acting and melodrama in plot.

The first section, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” begins with a long back-of-the-taxi nighttime conversation that, in its long takes and uncanny mood, (cinematography by Iioka Yukiko), sometimes evokes My Dinner with Andre (1981). The elegant Konno (Hyunri) describes to best friend Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) a “magical” and serendipitous first date, in which the sexless and totally clean 15-hour conversation felt “erotic.” But traumatized by a cheating ex, the guy wouldn’t commit yet, and both anticipate a second date.

Soon after they part, it is revealed that Meiko is the cheating ex of the dreamboat, a small business owner named Kubota (Nakajima Ayumu). Meiko’s sudden appearance at his office sparks a verbal confrontation pregnant with malevolent chaos.

Here, Meiko practices a spontaneous emotional honesty that, along with her beauty, pageboy, and hoodie (costumes by Usui Fuminori), make her solidly punk. Hyunri and Nakajima are great, but Furukawa is electrifying: Every utterance — every gesture — is an attack, and her performance is like a more controlled yet still feral version of Kim Min-hee’s drunken rant midway through Hong Sang-soo’s On the Beach at Night Alone (2017).

Only when Kubota starts fighting back during this scene does Meiko admit that she still loves him. The resolution of this secret love triangle I’ll leave for you to discover, though I will say that it has a few twists, one of which is conveyed through surprising editing.


Photo Credit: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Poster

“Door Wide Open” is more traditionally erotic. Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), a novelist who has recently won a literary award, fails the lazy Sasaki (Kai Shouma), delaying his graduation and preventing him from taking up some prestigious job opportunities. In revenge, Sasaki convinces his classmate and lover, married mother Nao (Mori Katsuki), to seduce Segawa while secretly recording the encounter. Her strategy of reading aloud to the professor an erotic passage from his novel is complicated by the fact that he adamantly insists on keeping his office door wide open. And after all is said and done, his lust for women is as nothing compared to his lust for language — the very language that ends up betraying them both.

Meiko and Kubota’s conversation takes place in his open plan office (production designed by Nunobe Masato and Seo Hyeon-Seon), reflecting how unpredictable it is in its development; “Door Wide Open” is set in cramped apartments and offices and shot with restrictive compositions, emphasizing the sense of manipulation, control, and eroticism. Nao always exudes an understated sensuality, especially when reading the novel’s passages in her honeyed voice. It recalls the erotic monologue of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), with the added frisson of students noisily passing by outside the office door (sound designed by Suzuki Akihiko).

It’s hard to say whether Nao succeeds. Segawa’s reaction, and his social interactions in general, are eccentric, and he keeps guiding the conversation back to Nao’s opening questions about novelistic craft, advising her to cherish what makes her different, including her promiscuity. Despite everything, they form an undefinable bond, and that bond becomes their undoing.

In the world of “Once Again,” written before the pandemic and shot in March 2020, an unstoppable computer virus has crippled the internet. Pixie-cut Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) attends a 20-year high school reunion and remembers nobody. On her way home the following morning, she encounters a familiar face from high school and goes to visit her home. Only when the conversation starts to dig deep into the past do they discover that they don’t remember each other’s names. In fact, they don’t know each other at all: Aya (Kawai Aoba) only looks like Natsuko’s first love, who broke up with her in college for a boy. And Natsuko resembles Aya’s closest friend in high school.

Embarrassed but undaunted, Aya decides to role-play Natsuko’s ex to let her say what she’s been wanting to say to her for twenty years; Natsuko later returns the favor by role-playing Aya’s friend. These dialogue scenes may lack the tension of the previous two sections, but they’re more expansive and multidimensional. When real identities are no issue, the whole section comes to feel metaphysically limitless. The true multiverse is in the mind.

In all three sections, Hamaguchi uses head-on Ozu-like shots for the emotional climax; here the effect is to block out everything extraneous and draw us deeper into the fantasy. And as the simple piano score only appears when transitioning between sections, the climaxes are all about the acting. Like before, there’s a twist at the end, but it’s a poignant and joyful twist, centered on recovery instead of loss.

Hamaguchi is best known for his four- and five-hour films. Those also feature artifice, but the shorter format here highlights the manufactured plot elements in ways that sometimes make the stories feel almost allegorical. What keeps everything grounded is the nimble writing, stellar performances, and, paradoxically, the faint veneer of unreality. In these times, reality itself can feel a bit unreal.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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