Berlinale FF 2021

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy review – an utterly triumphant triptych

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s magical new film offers sharp social critique and gut-punch twists across three deceptivity simple stories

A model discovers her friend is dating her ex; a student is coerced into setting a honeytrap for a professor; a lonely woman tries to reconnect with her high-school bestie. The simplicity of the three stories that make up Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s magical new film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, belies sharp social critique and gut-punch twists. Hamaguchi has a light touch: his films are often compared to the likes of Eric Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo, but he's in a class of his own.

In the first story, a model, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), navigates hipster Tokyo. We learn little about her until she shares a taxi home with Tsugumi (Hyunri). As the headlights of a motorway paint colours behind their conversation, Tsugumi describes an encounter with a sexy businessman that has the power of a conversational caress (“I didn't know conversations could be this erotic”). Sustaining the shot for over ten minutes, we are transported into these women's imaginations. The simplicity of the images on-screen become oddly hallucinatory, given the awkward sitcom situations that Hamaguchi conjures.

Of course (of course!), the man Tsugumi describes turns out to be Meiko’s ex-boyfriend of two years – a cool businessman with sharp cheekbones who denies any emotional investment in anyone. And the film explodes from there. With each of the three stories dropping a dizzying twist halfway through, the first tale remains the simplest. Each time, the turn seems inevitable. How else could the scenario have played out? Hamaguchi’s writing is precise and straightforward, the film coming off like a bedtime story about the perils of the modern world.

Like many of the best films produced since the pandemic, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy stretches the limits of production so that minimalism has its time in the sun. This new wave of “Pandemic Cinema” uses its tools to make us aware of proximity, to allow two people talking in a room to carry the story and our imaginations, a simple flourish like a well-placed zoom reminding us of cinema’s potential to zig and zag. Nowhere is this more effective than in the second story, a hilarious, excruciating, and inevitably heartbreaking piece of drama that taps into anxieties about sexual harassment without ever coming across as crass or preachy.

The idea of technology gently encroaches on all three tales. The alternate present setting of the third story brings this into sharp view: to explain an otherwise awkward plot point, the internet is no longer a facet of life. With Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai as long-lost school friends, the film concludes with a tear-jerker that recalls Hamaguchi’s previous film Asako I & II, and expands on it. In the first two tales, technology plays a part in creating the film's “coincidences.” But in the third, Hamaguchi suggests more spiritual forces are at work, that these coincidences were bound to occur regardless of major shifts in global communication.

Hamaguchi’s utterly triumphant triptych more than holds together: compact and lightly drawn, it's perfectly pitched for these and all times.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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