There’s only one New Year’s resolution which makes sense in 2022: have as good a year as Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2021. The Japanesewriter-director won near-unanimous acclaim at Cannes for Drive My Car – though admittedly not quite mine – just a couple of months after Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won prizes at Berlin. If Hamaguchi’s more awarded second film is a dense telling of a Haruki Murakami short story, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a little easier on the mind. An hour shorter and split into three self-contained stories, it’s a more accessible introduction to Hamaguchi’s undoubtedly unique and provocative style. And for cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike, Hamaguchi’s way of making films is not one to miss.
The first part, titled “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”, is about a model whose best friend falls for her ex. Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) keeps a cool head while Tsugumi (Hyunri) unwittingly reveals she is dating Meiko’s ex Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima). Meiko can only observe: “You’re glowing right now.” Now isolated from her friend’s new bond and confused about her own love life, Meiko ponders her future.
That sounds like a hefty dramatic premise, but Hamaguchi’s light touch and a Randy Newman-esque piano ditty for a score lend a jarring softness to the whole thing. The same is true for part 2, titled “Door Wide Open”, which follows a repressed professor and novelist caught in an attempted honey trap by two spurned ex-students. Hamaguchi rarely moves the camera, but lets you know when he does, in the form of sudden optical zooms and bold cutaways. One twenty-plus-minute scene in this vignette is probably the film’s highlight, a wonderfully staged conversation which shows Hamaguchi’s substantial screenwriting flair.
But it’s the final part which is the most significant of the three. “Once Again” begins with a description of a computer virus which reveals all the information held on computers. People must now use telegrams and the postal service to communicate from afar. So when Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) shows up to her high school reunion, she’s wielding a paper invitation. Struggling to remember her classmates, she flirts with another ex-student, who tells her she hasn’t changed. When Natsuko thinks she sees a former partner on an escalator, they hang out and try to relive old times. But Aya (Aoba Kawai) isn’t who she thinks – and the truth becomes a route to a more powerful bond between the pair.
It’s not a surprise to learn the first two chapters in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy were shot before the pandemic, while the last was filmed later in 2020. Few films or TV shows have faithfully captured what the virus has done to our social connections, but the allegory of the tech breakdown in “Once Again” – intentional or otherwise – is a clever conceit. Considering Hamaguchi is one of the world’s cleverest filmmakers at work right now, that’s little surprise.