Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy ★★★½

You can often look at alternative or original titles of films to get at the crux of what the work will be about. The title upon release may be more cryptic, serving to conceal what occurs within the film, be enticing to different audiences, or simply be more imaginative than the literal. The latter is the case for Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. ‘Gûzen to sôzô’ is the Japanese title for the film, translating to ‘Coincidence and Imagination’. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy consists of three short films, each forty minutes in length, that concern themselves with the theme of love. Love by coincidence, love through imagination.

MV5BMTY4MjgyZjUtOGZjNi00ZTc4LWFkNWUtOWZjZWM2MDdkZjdkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQ5Mzc5MDU@._V1_The first story, ‘Magic (Or Something Less Assuring)’, is set up by a discussion between two women in the back of a cab. Tsugumi (Hyunri) has recently gone on a date with Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) and describes the encounter to her close friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa). She tells of a quickly forming bond between herself and Kazuaki, describing the conversations that occurred during the date that take a personal and affecting turn. Their date is as close to love at first sight as one may get, though Meiko is hiding a secret: she is Kazuaki’s ex. Meiko’s questioning of Tsugumi regarding if she had sex on the date and how Kazuaki described his ex take on a context that Tsugumi is unaware of, and the discussion otherwise comprises of light, excited girltalk. But Meiko takes it upon herself to visit Kazuaki, and their meeting makes things.. well, complicated.

The second story, ‘Door Wide Open’, begins in the classroom though a scene is brewing across the hall where a student, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), is begging on hand and knees to his Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) for a better grade in his class. Sasaki’s life depends on it. Without good grades, he is at risk of not being able to find a job to his liking. Sasaki’s loud grovelling attracts the attention of another professor who begins to close the door to Segawa’s office so he and Segawa can calm Sasaki down. Segawa tells the professor to leave the door open. People like to gossip about what happens behind closed doors.

The simple act of leaving the door open takes on a paramount level of importance when, months later, Sasaki is bitter that Professor Segawa won a literary prize for his novel, adding to his accolades. At this time, Sasaki is in a friends with benefits relationship with Nao (Katsuki Mori) who is also a student. He suggests to Nao that she should attempt to seduce Professor Segawa and entrap him in a sexual scandal, ruining his professional life. Nao is at first against the idea, but before we know it she is at Professor Segawa’s door… which is wide open. Nao’s attempts to convince Professor Segawa to close the door build suspense through the scene. Nao decides to read an erotic passage from Professor Segawa’s novel and discuss sexual temptation with him, perhaps attempting to consummate her lust as well as entrap him, all the while trying to find any means possible to close his office door. Her plan depends on it.

With the office door, Ryusuke Hamaguchi enables an ordinary, everyday object to heighten the suspense of a scene. Such a task is seldom pulled off within a drama; it is usually a thriller that seeks to stir this kind of tension. This middle story within Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is the most crafty of the three, Hamaguchi using the second story akin to how a storyteller would use the second act of a three act structure. Nao questions Professor Sagawa about the erotic scene that occurs midway through his novel, and he tells her that while he was uncertain about including it within the story, its location in the middle of the novel made it more likely for people to finish reading the novel. Likewise, placing ‘Door Wide Open’ as the second story holds a similar purpose, and I like to think it also serves as a tongue-in-cheek reminder from Hamaguchi that we’re engaged in his stories.

The last of the tales, ‘Once Again’, bears an interesting premise, counter to that of our own experiences within the COVID-19 pandemic. A title card leading into ‘Once Again’ tells us of a computer virus that rendered digital communication impossible, and the world has reverted to using letters and in-person discussion as the primary means of communication. The story begins at a high school reunion. Following the reunion, two women cross paths and begin conversing, believing the other to be a different person from high school. After all, it had been twenty years and appearances change. To us in our very-connected world, this circumstance of mistaken identity would be near impossible, but in ‘Once Again’ it allows the two women to recall their time in high school, their formative years. They discuss friendships and relationships, interactions that still dwell on these women’s minds and hearts. Similar to the made-up phone conversation in Before Sunrise, the two take on the identities of others to come to terms with their past and changing lives.

Not a film that tells a singular story, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy will likely be relegated to a ‘minor’ film within Hamaguchi’s filmography. But for such a skilled director, a ‘minor’ film is not any lesser than their other works. One would be hard-pressed to find anything ‘minor’ about Ingmar Bergman’s After the Rehearsal, for instance. And like After the Rehearsal, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy revolves around dialogue, and revolves around a small cast of characters within each story. Hamaguchi builds upon the thoughtful and relatable conversations within his breakout film Happy Hour in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, crafting realistic dialogue and characters that bear more resemblance to flesh-and-blood people than characters in countless other films. Every character has a motive, desires, and inhibitions, just like ourselves, and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is ultimately very truthful in its portrayal of coincidence and imagination in matters of love.

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