Berlinale 2021 review: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

“Would you dare to believe in something less assuring than magic?”

Three stories, three chance encounters, three small bouts of deception too. But it’s the coincidence that counts in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s collection of short stories that comprise Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and also the unexpected consequences that these coincidences can hold. Life can be surprising and hold a little bit of magic for those who will see the rarity in between the mundane and expected, and Hamaguchi creates three delightful tales out of this concept, part of a series of seven (the other four possibly filling out his next film?). It is not only his ability to construct three tight plots in such short time, but also the depth of the crackling dialogue and the conception of fully realized and relatable characters that show Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is the work of a very accomplished storyteller.

Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and Tsugumi (Hyunri) share a taxi ride after working together on a photoshoot. Tsugumi tells Meiko about a first date she recently had, and how she felt an immediate connection to this man that she hopes to see again. The more information she gives about him, the more Meiko realizes that Tsugumi is, unknowingly, talking about Meiko’s ex. A man she cheated on, and who, as Tsugumi tells it, was devastated after Meiko left him. On a whim she seeks out this ex-lover (Ayumu Nakajima) in his office and they engage in a push-pull conversation that conjures up doubts in both of them about whether the flame of their love is perhaps still burning.

Sasaki (Shouma Kai) is a student who flunked his studies because his college professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) refused to give him a good grade. When Segawa wins a prestigious literary prize, out of spite Sasaki sends his friend-with-benefits Nao (Katsuki Mori) out to seduce the professor and create a scandal. When Nao, herself one of his former students, visits Segawa in his office and reads him a steamy passage from his own book, temperatures rise. But will Nao’s ploy succeed, and as she gets to know her former teacher better, does she even want it to?

Natsuke (Fusako Urabe) is an unemployed IT engineer who visits a high school reunion. Socially awkward, the one woman she hopes to see after all those years isn’t there. So when by chance she runs into this woman (Aoba Kawai) not much later, she is delighted to have found the one classmate she shared an intimate secret with back then. But has her high school soulmate, now a well-to-do married housewife, changed in the two decades since they last saw each other?

What perhaps surprises most about Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is the sexual frankness that runs through these three stories. Sexual encounters, discussions about whether sex on a first date is okay or not, erotic literature read out loud, and unrequited lesbian love are given an openness that is not common in this type of Japanese auteur cinema. The other side of that coin is a tinge of loneliness, of people reaching out for human contact, and a certain melancholia running through the narratives. That Hamaguchi manages to colour each of these stories so consistently is no mean feat, with each of them coming in around 40 minutes, and the setup of each done very efficiently through evocative dialogue that disseminates characterization quickly. In this the director is helped by a uniformly outstanding cast, who thrive in his no-frills mise-en-scene and the dense conversations he hands them.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy further solidifies Hamaguchi at the forefront of Japan’s new generation of auteurs, a gifted raconteur with as good an eye for plot as he has for character. The cherry on top, however, is how he weaves the unexpected into each of his tales, which gives them a playfulness that is oddly hopeful in rather dour times. Chance encounters and misunderstandings change life courses in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and to see them play out in Hamaguchi’s world is a true delight.