Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai | Guzen to sozo | Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by Ryusuke Hamaguchi JPN 2021, Competition © 2021 Neopa/Fictive Still Courtesy: M-Appeal

Succumbing to the Rhythm of Life – Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Berlinale 2021 Film Review)

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When Ryūsuke Hamaguchi debuted his five-hour epic Happy Hour at Locarno six years ago, his long-deserved repertoire finally came into the international limelight. For those unfamiliar with his filmography, his work is consistently devastating, as he produces and writes nuanced stories that feature a muted directional form. With his latest feature Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi tackles an anthology-based format. In three distinct chapters, Hamaguchi mixes themes of destiny, humility and tragedy to amplify the interconnecting theme of satisfaction and the universal desire for resolution. 

Opening the triptych is the episode entitled Magic (or something less assuring). As per usual, there’s an endearing amount of awkwardness in Hamaguchi’s approach with blocking throughout the segment. Extended long takes, static camera angles, obtuse pauses and mannerisms, and percussive dialogue offer insight on the power dynamics at play. Shrouded in mystery, Magic (or something less assuring) aims towards a momentous climax of sexual desire and a commentary regarding the current state of dating culture. Where its final resolution is slightly rushed when contrasted with the methodical pacing and unraveling of events prior — there’s a certain threshold within the short that offers a unique commentary on the universal experiences of jealousy, rage, and contemplation when transitioning between relationships. 

The second segment titled Door Wide Open also features a similar amount of risqué eroticism and signature style as one would expect from the renowned Japanese auteur. A segment that opens flimsily with a confused central point of view, the story later positively evolves into a tense meditation on sexual repression and the lesser conversed subject of societal dissonance on subjects revolving around sex and other miscellaneous desires. Toying in its humble beginnings as almost a subversion on the common revenge trope, the film gradually turns into a masterclass of tension and the craft of executing a perfect one-on-one conversation. There’s a rhythm to Hamaguchi’s screenwriting; a beat-driven dialogue riddled with sexual tension and subtext that broadens the thematic scope of the original material. It opens a whole new perspective — where the metaphorical title adds purpose to the mundane and meaning to the obscurity of these aforementioned sexual desires. It’s an episode that concludes not with resolution, but rather the yearning for closure — a recurring theme throughout the three chapters, where characters are continuously stuck in momentary limbo. 

Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori in Guzen to sozo | Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by Ryusuke Hamaguchi | JPN 2021, Competition | © 2021 Neopa/Fictive
Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori in Guzen to sozo | Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by Ryusuke Hamaguchi | JPN 2021, Competition | © 2021 Neopa/Fictive

Concluding his trilogy, Once Again finalises and completes Hamaguchi’s emotionally enriching saga of shorts. One could even argue that the episode is Hamaguchi’s own personal rift on COVID-19 and the current ongoing-pandemic — whether intentional or not. This time around, Hamaguchi subverts a done-to-death concept of pandemic isolation, with a clever commentary and subversion on the tangibility and accessibility of memory and friendship during the social media age. Both highlighting the advantages and disadvantages of a time where a technological-based virus runs rampant through a disconnected society, Hamaguchi still manages to form a subdued narrative with his traditional minimalist approach. It should be acknowledged that the science-fiction world building — while undeniably witty in concept — is never the forefront thematically.

But in some regard, the episode’s pandemic parallels may just be its fatal flaw. There’s a tonal disconnect between the prior two episodes —  which feature a heavy focus on sexuality. In terms of the pre-established playfulness and bawdy attempts at innuendo, Once Again feels like a completely separate episode from the rest of the film. What’s humorous about this situation is that with the pre-established world building, one can even argue that Hamaguchi should have continued to play with the concept of an internet-ridden society in a completely different project. With this short episode already produced, some including myself would be morbidly curious to see what else Hamaguchi can pull with this concept from his already impressive backlog of ambitious feature productions. 

Time is a flat circle. It’s also a construct, a prison, and a wheel. A wheel that is endlessly running and spinning, as our insignificant livelihood continuously passes through the daily struggles of routine. While perception of time is purely figurative throughout Hamaguchi’s film, there’s a consistent tone of dread and eerie suspense within the context of each low-fi story. Even when dealing with the more scandalous and kinky material, the eroticism is always subdued to the point of subverted impact. Impact that lingers rather than stings. An impact that subtly provokes themes of relationship conflict and internalised despair.

As one character aptly states:

Time is slowly killing me.

Dir: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi

Scr: Ryūsuke Hamaguchi

Cast: Kotone Furukawa, Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Kiyohiko Shibukawa

Country: Japan

Year: 2021

Runtime: 121 minutes

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is set to compete for the prestigious Golden Bear award at this year’s 71st Berlinale. M-Appeal will release the film in the coming months.

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David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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