Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

M, 121 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

On the face of it, an anthology or portmanteau movie can look like it has plenty going for it, if it brings together top directors, writers and stars. But it can still get a mixed reaction from audiences who expect one thing and find another.

The Turning was based on Tim Winton’s writing, and it has loads to recommend it, but the Aussie anthology film got a mixed response. Despite the big names who contributed to Paris, je t’aime, with their perspectives on the world’s most romantic city, it got grumpy reactions in some quarters. And New York Stories, bringing together the work of an Allen, a Scorsese and a Coppola on their hometown, an intriguing city if ever there was one, was declared good, bad and disappointing by one of America’s top critics at the time.

As the work of a single creative voice within the collaborative filmmaking industry, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, in three episodes, seems to have a better chance. Besides, the writer-director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is the filmmaker behind the distinctive, dreamlike, emotional journey that is Drive My Car.

A wheel of fortune is particularly apt in this spare and elegant collection about young women navigating the social environment of contemporary Japan

In his anthology, Hamaguchi has settled on a time, rather than a place, in the lives of its three main characters. That time in early adulthood when people are building careers, meeting partners, settling down, or they are not. The fortune wheel motif seems particularly apt here, in this spare and elegant collection of stories about three young women navigating the social environment of contemporary Japan. Each of the narratives is a play on the element of chance and coincidence in human relationships, and each resists a conclusive resolution.

The long, languid takes by cinematographer, Yukiko Iioka, provide opportunities for the lengthy conversation that take place between characters, and offer meditative views on life in contemporary Japan. As the images of cityscapes and interiors unspool, there is also a documentary aspect, a reflection of a whole society. It is intriguing to know that Hamaguchi has until recently been working in the documentary space.

The first short story, ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’, starts with a fashion shoot. During a lengthy taxi ride afterwards, model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), hears from a good friend and work colleague, Tsugumi (Hyunri), about her new romantic interest. Meiko comes to realise that the young man in question is actually a former boyfriend of hers, and she immediately sets off to confront handsome Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) with unfinished business at his office. In the final scenes at a café, Meiko demands that her ex choose between herself and her friend, but, alternative endings and suggestions of new vistas aside, the tale is still teasingly inconclusive.

Each has that slice of-life feeling that captures the authenticity of random moments in lives shaped by coincidence and chance

Each of the stories in Wheel of Fortune has that slice of-life feeling that captures the authenticity of random moments in lives shaped by coincidence and chance.

In the second narrative, ‘Door Wide Open’, a young married mother, Nao (Katsuki Mori), sets out to ensnare a French professor in a honey-trap for the benefit of her hunky. dim younger lover. Sasaki (Shouma Kai) is a student whom the prof refuses to mark up, despite the young man prostrating himself in his office for a pass, in full view of other students and staff.

Kotone Furukawa in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. Image courtesy Potential Films

The tables unfortunately turn on the gentle, dishevelled prof (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), whose expression alternates between impassive and startled as he listens to Nao reading aloud explicit erotic passages from his award-winning novel. The interaction between them becomes another long conversation and it’s very amusing. However, despite the university’s open doors policy, the prof’s fate underlines how the wheel of fortune is hardly ever fair.

The third narrative, ‘Once Again’, involving reunions, renewed friendships and mistaken identities 20 years after high school, is yet another deftly-drawn piece on how we stumble through life. Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai as the two protagonists handle their roles with sensitivity, as do all the actors. There’s nothing aggressively shouty here.

Around this time last year, Hamaguchi had a big impact when both Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy established his reputation in an instant, winning awards for him at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, respectively. It was a dream introduction to the global audience, and so richly deserved for a director who navigates the nebulous realm of human relationships.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 May 2022.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes