Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 17th, 2022
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has a clear affinity for exploring the vagaries and tragedies of the human heart. Both films he premiered in 2021 tackle romance and sorrow in intriguingly unique ways. And though his Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, out now on disc and VOD, may not be quite at the level of his Drive My Car, it is still a formally elegant and emotional engaging examination of romance and heartbreak. Divided into three sections, it features a trio of self-contained stories, none intersecting, each of which follows troubled characters at moments of crises in their lives. The final part proves the most moving, but there’s always something worth watching, throughout.
Episode 1—”Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”—at first follows two women, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa, On the Street) and Tsugumi (Hyunri, Wife of a Spy), as they ride home in a taxi together following a photo shoot. Tsugumi, aka Gumi, tells Meiko of a recent date with a man that turned simultaneously sweet and erotic. Something clicks inside Meiko at the details, however, sending her not to her own place after dropping Gumi off, but to an office location where she surprises a man she hasn’t seen for two years. What thereafter transpires may not be magic, but it still intrigues.
Episode 2—” Door Wide Open”—begins with conflict as a college student, Sasaki (Shouma Kai, You Shine in the Moonlight) throws himself at the feet of his professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Shiba Park), to no avail: the latter won’t change the former’s failing grade. Cut to 5 months later, and Sasaki is now involved with fellow student Nao (Katsuki Mori). Overly confident of his sexual charms, the young man, jealous over Professor Segawa’s recent book-publication success, does his best to persuade Nao to set up a honeytrap whereby the academic will be fired. Things don’t quite go as planned.
Finally, Episode 3—” Once Again”—starts at a 20th high-school reunion. Natsuko (Fusako Urabe, Seiza), an IT worker out of a job following the release of a computer virus, returns to her hometown to attend the aforementioned gathering. There, she sees no one to make the journey worthwhile. But the next day, walking back to the train station, she unexpectedly crosses paths with Aya (Aoba Kawai, Meatball Machine), the one person with whom she desperately wished to reconnect. Despite the initially joyful encounter, the situation quickly becomes complicated, the truth of their past relationship more complicated than it first seemed. By the end, however, they reach a deeply poignant understanding.
Beautifully shot and edited, frequently featuring exquisite long takes, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy nevertheless offers uneven cinematic pleasures. The middle section, especially, fails to impress, though its performances are first-rate. The concluding narrative is so perfect that it leaves us profoundly satisfied, largely making up for the movie’s previous flaws. Perhaps the best part of the overall experience is how unexpected all the twists and turns turn out to be. That’s due to neither fortune nor fantasy, but just good writing.