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Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which won the grand jury prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, is a three-part anthology in which its stories are linked by themes implied in the segment titles: Each of the three female protagonists’ lives are changed by chance and all three stories ask “what if” questions that stimulate the imagination, with one even venturing into sci-fi.

The segments are also imbued with an eroticism at once playful and serious, tied to the women’s emotional cores. Throughout the film, German composer Robert Schumann’s “Traumerei” (“Dreaming”), with its sweet simplicity and merry-go-round-like repetitions, evokes the “wheel” of the English title.

The stories, written by Hamaguchi, thus have a formal unity, while reflecting the unruly nature of life, with its coincidences and sudden changes of heart and luck that seem to defy reason. They solidify his reputation as a director of rare talent and ambition, though both qualities were already apparent in his 2015 breakthrough “Happy Hour,” a five-hour drama that also experimented with form and narrative.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Guzen to Sozo)
Rating
Run Time 121 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Dec. 17

The first segment, “Magic (or something less assuring),” centers on Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a pixie-like fashion model who listens — in one long, immersive take — as her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) rhapsodizes about a recent first date. She tells Meiko that her new guy, Kazuaki, described the date as “the best day of (his) life.”

After parting from Tsugumi, Meiko goes directly to confront Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), an ex she hasn’t seen since he discovered her cheating on him, two years ago. With naked honesty and brazen persistence, Meiko knocks down his defensive wall of anger and pain to get at their bedrock feelings for each other. Poor Tsugumi’s dream of romance doesn’t stand a chance — or does it?

In the second segment, “Door Wide Open,” a college student (Shouma Kai) attempts to get back at his French professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who is also a literary prize-winning celebrity, for failing him by persuading his older, married lover (Katsuki Mori) to seduce his teacher and sell the ensuing scandal to the media. But once in the professor’s office, her “honey trap” scheme starts to unravel, starting with his insistence that she leave the door open. Nonetheless, she breaks down her target’s reserves, though the outcome is not what she planned.

The concluding segment, “Once Again,” unfolds in a near-future in which a computer virus has wiped out the internet, forcing the world to return to analog communications. Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) goes to her 20th college class reunion and, afterward, runs into an old classmate (Aoba Kawai) who missed the gathering.

The classmate, now a housewife, invites Natsuko to her home, but as they renew their acquaintance the two women discover that they actually don’t know each other. Even so, they have made a connection — and the housewife, Aya, offers to pretend to be Natsuko’s long-lost classmate, who was also her first lover and heartbreak after leaving her for a man. Just before the new friends part ways, Natusko offers to live out a fantasy for Aya in return.

Their friendship may not have the good fortune to last, but with masks dropped and hearts opened, it shows us how fiction can tell deeper truths than fact and how one kind deed can power us through life, in all its beauty, terror and mystery.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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