Drive My Car director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a lighter exploration of his abiding obsessions. By Anthony Carew.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.
Credit: Neopa / Fictive

The most unlikely breakout of Hollywood’s recent awards season was Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. Previously known to festival audiences for his durational tendencies – long takes, long scenes, long running times – the Japanese filmmaker was considered an acquired taste. His definitive work was 2015’s Happy Hour, a five-hour domestic drama chronicling the shifting relationships between four 30-something female friends.

Yet a strange thing happened with Drive My Car, a three-hour adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. From Cannes to Toronto to the Golden Globes, the film kept collecting accolades, leading to Hamaguchi sitting with Steven Spielberg in the Oscars’ Best Director field.

Drive My Car isn’t his only new movie. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – which won the Grand Jury Prize on its Berlin premiere – is a lighter, shorter work from the 43-year-old filmmaker, clocking in at a mere 121 minutes.

A triptych of unrelated stories, the tales are united by two of Hamaguchi’s favourite on-screen predilections: the spectre of the “ex” and the depiction of mutual fictions. His dramas are full of romantic entanglements where the past plays into the present: 2018’s Asako I & II, for example, is a feature-length study of the romanticisation of a past love.

As a whole, Hamaguchi’s films can be read as a study of performance, whether on stage or among groups of friends. The director interrogates the discrepancies between how people present themselves and who they actually are, featuring characters who maintain delusions or outright lies, often set against others who believe themselves to be proponents of unvarnished honesty.

In Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, characters withhold truths, enact deceptions or perform fictions. This happens both playfully and painfully. The farce has used deception for comic purposes for hundreds of years, but the theme is sharpened here by the contemporary notion of a “post-truth” climate, in which subjective perception trumps objective reality.

The three tales in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy feel like small plays, quietly observant two-handers in which characters feel each other out through conversation. Theatre is often literally present in Hamaguchi’s films, with both 2013’s (255-minute) Intimacies and Drive My Car devoting much of their running time to its preparation and performance.

Off camera, Hamaguchi is obsessed with rehearsal. He puts his cast through weeks of preparation, coming up with complex backstories for characters and – as seen on-screen in Drive My Car – asking his actors to repeat their lines constantly until they break through the surface emotion, hoping to get at something deeper.

Grounded by this preparation, Hamaguchi has faith that viewers will be able to detect the emotions simmering beneath the surface, the internal conflicts of his characters. His actors and dramas rarely “go big”; instead the performances are measured, the camera quietly observing people talking. Viewers are privy to knowledge that can deepen their understanding of the subtext of a conversation. Usually, we know when, and why, someone is lying, or bending a situation to their benefit.

The most cynical manipulations of truth come in the middle tale, “Door Wide Open”, via Sasaki (Shouma Kai), an amoral figure of blame-passing and male entitlement who’s having an affair with the married Nao (Katsuki Mori). When his professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), refuses to reverse Sasaki’s failing grade, he concocts a revenge scheme: Nao will covertly record herself seducing Segawa in his office, then leak the recording to the media.

In a 25-minute scene that shows Hamaguchi’s fondness for unhurried conversation – and includes another of his favourite devices, shooting characters staring into the lens to place viewers within the conversation – Nao proves comically unsuited to being the bait in a honeypot trap. Yet Segawa and Nao “unexpectedly connect” when Nao admits to the failed gambit, creating a confessional space.

For Hamaguchi, a favoured confessional space is – as Drive My Car demonstrated – the automobile. Being inside a car, the director has said, is “a strange and mysterious space” that’s both “public and private”, which makes it a natural forum for discussion and disclosure. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy opens with 10 minutes of talking in a taxi, where Tsugumi (Hyunri) recounts to her friend, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a recent date that was itself one long “15-hour conversation”.

What Meiko doesn’t say, we soon discover, is that her friend’s new romance is with Meiko’s ex-boyfriend, Kazu (Ayumu Nakajima). After saying goodbye to Tsugumi, Meiko goes straight to Kazu, colliding with the painful past in a scene of great conflict that empties the pair’s tortured romantic history.

Bouncing from non-disclosure to disclosure is something Hamaguchi is deft at, each conversational mode important in his depictions of social performances. He’s a master of chronicling things unspoken, feeling the tension of lingering secrets and truths withheld. But he also understands the dramatic power of revelation. His early film school feature Passion (2008) and his breakout, Happy Hour, each chronicle friendship groups split apart, less by the secrets they hold than by those truths being turned loose.

In the first story in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, called “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”, Meiko must weigh up keeping a secret versus disclosing a difficult truth, attempting to decide which will ultimately hurt her friend the least. Hamaguchi is happy to sit in spaces in which there’s no easy answer, navigating interpersonal relationships full of complex feelings and competing agendas.

The notion of public performance or social play-acting is taken to comic, charming ends in the final story, “Once Again”. Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) has returned to her hometown for a school reunion, and bumps into Aya (Aoba Kawai), an old classmate who invites her back to her house. Across a 32-minute conversation, we discover that each has mistaken the other for someone else, a different former classmate. When they realise their error, they continue playing along, and by the time they confess what’s happened, they’re so invested in the emotional stakes that they willingly role-play as the person they were mistaken for.

Hamaguchi’s characters are often performing for personal gain, to keep secrets or in deference to social conventions, but here Natsuko’s and Aya’s mutual performances serve the wellbeing of – and the emotional connection with – another.

In an unusual move for a director who has made several documentaries and anchors his dramas in contemporary reality, Hamaguchi sets this story in an alternative 2018, in which the internet has been wiped out by a virus. This suggests that he sees our online times as inhibiting this kind of connection. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is, for all its schemes and romantic entanglements, essentially a film honouring these moments of connection, showing the risks and rewards found in the rare moments where two people dare to share a private conversational space. 

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is now showing in cinemas.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "Secrets and lies".

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