London Film Festival 2021: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

It’s an accomplishment for any filmmaker to be able to showcase their work at London Film Festival; however, for Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, he has two films showing at this year’s festival. With his adaptation of Drive My Car sweeping awards at Cannes Film Festival (you can read my review here), his second film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy took the Silver Bear Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival meaning that we are gifted with two exceptional films from the visionary filmmaker. The latter is an anthology film split into three segments centred on women and their lives in modern day Japan. The results are a fantastic glimpse into Hamaguchi’s solid character work and his ability to bring out the magic out of everyday life.

As expected, Hamaguchi’s direction and writing is seamless and organic, proving that he is a filmmaker who isn’t going anywhere. His use of long takes filled with dialogue between two characters can be intense and slow paced but works perfectly for the kind of films he wants to make. His ability to get into the characters’ heads and bring forth their motives in a way that is completely natural while making it seem effortless is exactly why he has been sweeping the awards panels off their feet. Showing the magic in everyday life may seem boring but what Hamaguchi does is create characters who are completely relatable whilst also allowing the audience to build their own interpretations and emotions on top of it. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy proves his talent for writing well-rounded female characters who have agency and are unaware of their sexuality without objectifying them at any point. He isn’t afraid to be daring in the topics he explores and seems to allow the characters to develop in an unpredictable way.

The film’s first segment is titled Magic (or Something Less Assuring) which follows friends Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and Tsugumi (Hyunri) as they leave work for the day. The latter is discussing how she has found someone she really likes called Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) who just so happens to be the former’s ex-boyfriend although she doesn’t know this. What follows is an intricate love triangle as Meiko realises she is still in love with Kazuaki and tries to win him back before he gets serious with Tsugami. Furukawa’s performance as Meiko, in particular, is unsettling as we see her discomfort as she realises the situation that has found herself in. Meiko’s encounter with Kazuaki shortly after leaving Tsugumi is gripping and unpredictable with both Furukawa and Nakajima visibly going through a whole spectrum of emotions after their relationship ended negatively two years earlier.

The second segment is titled Door Wide Open and is by far the most explicit and darkest inclusion of the three films. The film centres on Nao (Katsuki Mori) who agrees to seduce a reputable professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) after the latter humiliates her partner, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), a student who has failed his class. Like the first segment, it appears that there are three pieces of the puzzle moving and this one dives even deeper in terms of its complexity. Segawa is a renowned author and Nao’s method of seducing him is reciting an extract from his book in which there is an extremely detailed sexual encounter between characters. Never taking her eyes off Segawa whilst reading, we see the discomfort in both characters as the tensions rises in conjunction with the sexual tension from the excerpt. Mori’s performance is unapologetically fearless and completely gripping as we see the shift in control change constantly between Nao and Segawa. There are also discussions to be had of the gender constructs in this segment as well. Having a female character read the relentless sexual description of the writing from the male professor gives the former power of the situation, taking it from the professor in a bid to humilate him by using his own words against him.

The final segment is entitled Once Again and follows Moka (Fusako Urabe) who meets Nana (Aoba Kawai) at a train station believing that she was once her first love. Nana is flustered by Moka’s approach and is equally happy to see her. However, it later emerges that Nana isn’t who Moka thought she was and both women had mistakenly thought that the other was someone else entirely. The situation gives a chance for both characters to divulge into past traumas and find an outlet for its release to the other, despite being perfect strangers. Urabe and Kawai work fantastically together and we really feel their genuine connection as the events of the film develop. Even when it turns out that the characters don’t know each other, it doesn’t seem to matter and allows us to delve deeper into their backstories.

The only connecting thread that weaves these stories together is the music which is a light classical number by German composer Robert Schumann. The score is simple and romantic in style, fitting the themes of love perfectly as each woman shows their love in a different way. Even in the scenarios where there are dark undertones or an unhappy ending, the music serves to bring the audience back into the narrative of the film as an anthology and helps to move them along to the next segment. It’s a simple yet effective way of ensuring that these segments have some form of connection and helps to avoid alienating them as three completely separate films. After all, they do serve as a consistent triptych of the female perspective in modern day Tokyo which gives a basic common ground between them.

Overall, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy may be a jarring view for some due to its anthological narrative but it is a testament to Hamaguchi’s skill as a writer and director that he is able to work with so many different kinds of characters and somehow find the humanity in them, showing that not everything is in black and white or good and evil. With each segment lasting 40 minutes each, we are really able to delve deep into the characters’ psyches and are able to explore their perspective of the world in a short amount of time.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is showing at this year’s London Film Festival!

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