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Review: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – Gûzen to sôzô (2021)

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – Gûzen to sôzô (2021)

Directed by: Ryssuke Hamaguchi | 121 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Shouma Kai, Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is one of the latest films from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, one of the more promising filmmakers of the past decade. Hamaguchi knows what to do with script and direction, as he already proved with the acclaimed ‘Drive My Car’ (2021). However, unlike the latter title, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is an anthology film. The film’s 121 minutes are divided into three episodes, which are intertwined through thematics and film style. The stories vary from emotionally charged love affairs to instructive identity changes.

In the first story “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”, two best friends, the assertive Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and the slightly calmer Tsugumi (Hyunri) are chatting in the back of a taxi about a man Tsugumi has met, and her growing interest in him. However, it soon becomes clear that the man in question is Meiko’s ex-boyfriend. She decides to visit her former lover, a decision that results in a fierce and highly personal discussion. The innocent Tsugumi, meanwhile, knows nothing.

The first story of ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ is a perfect short film. Hamaguchi has managed to create an atmospheric and emotionally resonating short with this first segment, which in several respects has strong similarities with certain plot elements from ‘Drive My Car.’ The strength of this story lies mainly in the inscrutability of the characters. Every time you think the movie has revealed everything about its characters, something new pops up in the story, instantly changing your perception of them. These are complicated characters, with their own instruction booklet. The emotion is without a doubt the most raw in this segment. And Hamaguchi succeeds in this with flying colors.

The second story, “Door Wide Open,” centers on Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), a college professor in his fifties who just won a literary award, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), a student recently expelled from college by Segawa, and an older student, Nao (Katsuki Mori), who has a love affair with Sasaki. The latter, out of bitterness, convinces her to frame Segawa at the faculty. Nao must seduce Segawa in order to damage his reputation. What begins as a favor to Sasaki, however, quickly takes on a different, more personal form. The professor and student appear to have a lot in common.

This part unfolds with a few well-thought-out plot twists, in which sex and the impact of erotic prose play a major role. The chemistry between Kiyohiko Shibukawa as Segawa and Katsuki Mori as Nao is one of the best features of this story. The way their conversation develops in the film and then comes to an unforeseeable conclusion is unparalleled. However, then the film continues for a few more minutes, reaching a cloudy ending. The conclusion of this section feels somewhat gushing and unfinished. This part is of slightly lower quality than its predecessor.

The third segment, “Once Again,” is set in a reality where a computer virus inadvertently releases personal information, leaving everyone using pen and paper as usual. We follow Moka (Fusako Urabe), a middle-aged woman who attends a school reunion, with hopes of meeting an old friend. She’s out of luck, and the reunion passes more narrowly. The next day, by accident, she spots her friend at the train station. Both women start a conversation with each other. Soon, Nana (Aoba Kawai) turns out to be a different person, and the whole thing is a misunderstanding. However, this fact does not bother the two as they feel the need to continue their conversation with each other.

Hamaguchi makes the least impression with this final piece. That is not due to the actors (both Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai act excellently), but precisely due to the elaboration. The complications are not very interesting and the punch line is often far-fetched. How friendship can arise in the most unexpected moments is a pure and human theme, but it never finds the power here that makes it really compelling. Had the film started with this segment, it might have made a little more of an impression, but in the third and final division place it feels a bit disappointing.

Coincidence and choice play an important role in ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.’ Hamaguchi is interested in these themes and likes to integrate them into his films. His views on human relationships are touching, but also ruthless. His latest film, however, particularly excels in the dialogues, both in content and execution, adopting a minimalist approach when it comes to production and framing. At times, the Japanese filmmaker achieves a degree of focus that is reminiscent of the work of Yasujirô Ozu. And that deserves nothing but praise.

‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ does not entirely escape the common stumbling block of the anthology film, namely that not all stories are equally interesting. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t hurt the film on a vital level. The successful elements are simply too good for that.

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