Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

In Tokyo, a young woman reevaluates her ex when she realizes he is the exciting new man in her best friend’s life.  Elsewhere, a student tries to get revenge on a professor who refused to advance him by setting up his friend-with-benefit as a honey trap and a young woman attending her reunion sees her long lost love in a passing stranger who plays along in the throes of her own confusion.  Chance introduces sudden sharp turns when lives are spun on a “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.”

Laura's Review: A-

Writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi ("Asako I & II”) is racking up critics’ awards for his Haruki Murakami adaptation “Drive My Car,” but he had another film out earlier in 2021, an original anthology that won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.  The film features an exceptional ensemble working with Hamaguchi’s playful yet insightful script and is now available on blu-ray from Film Movement along with an interview with the filmmaker (and, as has been Film Movement tradition, a, short, Neo Sora’s ‘The Chicken’).  It’s one of the best films of the past year.

The Rohmeresque "Magic (or Something Less Assuring)" begins, amusingly, with a long conversation held within a car.  Fashion shoot producer ‘Gumi’ (Hyunri) invites her best friend and model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) to share a cab, then begins telling her about a magical evening connecting with a new man.  Meiko appears delighted, asking probing questions which appear innocent on the surface, but when she gets out of the cab, she doesn’t go home, instead knocking of the door of a business suite well after closing hours.  We soon learn she has surmised that Gumi’s been talking about Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), the man Meiko broke up with two years ago who runs a successful interior design firm.  Their verbal sparring makes it evident their romance never really ended, but will Meiko dash her friend’s hopes to explore her own feelings?  Hamaguchi lets things play out two different ways in his final scene where Kazu happens upon the two friends in a café, a lighter and quicker take on his “Asako” themes.  Hyunri radiates mature professionalism and shy sexuality while the childish looking Furukawa’s Meiko is bold, provocative and unflinching while confronting the handsome Nakajima.  The only off note here is a cheesy looking fast zoom in and out on Meiko which is used to transition between the alternate endings.

"Door Wide Open" also immediately appears to reference “Drive My Car,” its second scene opening on postcoital lovers.  Five months earlier we’d witnessed a college class sharing ideas with post-it notes on a wall (a Hamaguchi fondness for performative communication) when they’re startled by the loud protestations coming from the young man, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), prostrated before Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa, "Ichi the Killer") in the office across the hall.  Five months later, he and his older, married lover Nao (Katsuki Mori) see Segawa, whose latest novel has won a major literary prize, interviewed on television.  Nao admires him, but Sasaki wants revenge and so Nao goes to visit him with the pretext of getting her book signed.  She reads a particularly steamy passage, attempting to close his office door a second time as students pass by, but Segawa won’t allow it.  And yet a frank, confessional conversation ensues, one which has nothing to do with Sasaki’s agenda but reveals a lot about Nao’s sexuality and Segawa’s artistic process.  Five years later we learn how a momentary distraction cost both Nao and Segawa dearly while the undeserving Sasaki has scored an ironic win.

In the last of the triptych, "Once Again," chance is reversed as initial disappointment results in unexpected joy.  Moka (Fusako Urabe) attends her high school reunion, but stands apart like a wallflower.  One woman approaches and marvels that Moka has worn a skirt, implying her teenaged wardrobe was far from feminine.  Moka refuses invitations to continue the party, but the next day, touring Tokyo in pants with a backpack, she is startled by a woman on an escalator, a woman who also appears to recognize Moka.  Ana (Aoba Kawai) cannot accept an invitation to coffee but instead invites Moka to her home, where Moka’s confession of having lost the love of her life leads Ana to realize an embarrassing case of mistaken identity.  But Moka’s openness brings out Ana’s latent dissatisfaction and an entirely different kind of connection than the one Moka originally sought is made.

This is a great introduction to Hamaguchi, a film which can be watched in its 121 minute entirety or in short bursts.  The filmmaker’s themes – from the performance which can be seen in Nao’s false seduction to the search for identity inherent in the first blush of romance – are all here and his thoughtful writing has been honored by the work of his cast.  The film is a delightful surprise from start to finish.

Film Movement’s blu-ray doesn’t deliver the sharpest transfer, looking more like 16mm than the 2K digital the film was shot with.  It includes a subtitled interview with the director at the 59th New York Film Festival in which he expresses his love of short filmmaking (amusing considering his 3 and 5 hour feature runtimes) because of its ‘lightheartedness,’ a word he uses to describe the relief of the financial burden and expectations placed on features.  We learn this project was inspired by his interview with Eric Rohmer’s editor and he expresses shocked surprise that it went on to win the Silver Bear.  The short, “The Chicken” is about a Japanese immigrant in NYC who dreams of running a farm in Siberia.  He tries to impress his visiting cousin by buying a live chicken for dinner, only to find he is unable to kill it, leaving his very pregnant American wife to do the deed.  While the film’s cultural themes and ironies are obvious, given the film’s last scene it could also be seen as an elaborate twist on the chicken and the egg joke.   Trailers are included for the feature and a few other Film Movement titles.

Robin's Review: B+

Film Movement's theatrical engagements for "Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy" may be found hereIt streets on blu-ray on 1/18/22.