Brief Encounters: Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

By Beatrice Loayza.

Sprawling, intimate conversations are crucial in the dialogue-driven films of Hamaguchi Ryusuke, but that which remains concealed—simmering behind a strategic facade, sheepish deception, or playful pretense—can be just as revealing. Consider the pivotal dinner conversation that takes place after a communication workshop in the 317-minute Happy Hour (2015), when Jun (Kawamura Rira) suddenly discloses the shocking news of her upcoming divorce trial and owns up to her infidelity to her callous husband. In Asako I & II (2018),the title character’s former lover Baku reappears in the person of her new boyfriend Ryohei—a completely different man in spirit and temperament, yet physically the same as her ex. Asako (Karata Erika) keeps this connection a secret, afraid that her partner might consider their relationship a sham, and herself unwilling or unable to come to terms with the muddled nature of her desires. 

Through these patterns of withholding and release, and in the friction between make-believe and reality, Hamaguchi seeks to access slippery truths about the nature of yearning. In the Silver Bear-winning Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, he considers the power of playing pretend across three discrete acts, applying his deceptively breezy approach to the stories of a trio of women at decisive junctures in their lives. Wheel continues the director’s interest in middle-class womanhood in all its shades and contradictions—a consistent focus of his work since his breakthrough with Happy Hour—but unlike that durational epic, or Asako’s high-concept deconstruction of romantic fantasy, there is a new buoyancy to Hamaguchi’s latest, a feeling signalled by the title’s evocation of a carnival wheel. 

Like Rohmer’s triptych Les rendez-vous de Paris (1995), which Hamaguchi cites as a touchstone, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is composed of short tales of roughly 40 minutes each, all linked by the same wistful piano tune and hinged on the dialectical possibilities of the chance encounter. In the first installment, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),”a love triangle fizzles out as seen from the perspective of a wily ex-girlfriend, who discovers that her close friend has suddenly fallen for the same man she wound up betraying. We first see Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) at a distance: a fashion model with a boyish bob and round, puckish features, she is introduced as the centre of attention, the subject of a photo shoot taking place in an urban park. After the session, she and her friend-cum-assistant, whom she affectionately refers to as Gumi (Hyunri), share a cab ride home. As Gumi giddily recounts her rapturous first meeting with an interior design company executive with whom she fell into an extended, deeply intimate dialogue (“We caressed each other through conversation”), Meiko listens and subtly goads her into divulging more details, all while maintaining a facade of indulgent curiosity. 

After dropping Gumi off, Meiko redirects the driver and storms into an office space that belongs to Kazuaki (Nakajima Ayumi). Here, the connection between the three characters is disclosed, simultaneously recontextualizing Meiko’s behaviour in the cab: she is in fact the woman who cheated on and “traumatized” Gumi’s loverboy, Kazuaki, who, in this extended quarrel, easily bends to Meiko’s will. Yet there is something insincere about Meiko’s impulsive declaration of love and resulting romantic ultimatum. Triggered by the idea that Kazuaki might get over her by courting Gumi, she frantically attempts to re-establish her dominance by toying with his emotions, dangling over his head the possibility of their reunion while remaining enticingly ambiguous about her true intentions, reminding him that her freewheeling nature is at odds with monogamy. 

In the next scene, Meiko and Gumi catch up at a café when Kazuaki happens to pass by their window, briefly locking eyes with Meiko before Gumi, blissfully unaware of the complications before her, beckons him inside to join them. A fast zoom à la Hong Sangsoo homes in on Meiko’s flustered expression just before she blurts out the truth, demanding that Kazuaki choose between her or Gumi. In this hypothetical version of events—which turns out to be a projection of Meiko’s imagination—a shocked Gumi runs away in tears and Kazuaki chases after her,leaving Meiko abandoned and alone, both the villain and the loser of the piece. Hamaguchi then “replays” the encounter from the moment of Meiko’s pensive close-up: in reality, she reveals nothing and politely excuses herself. 

This unexpected display of maturity recasts the story as one of individual growth rather than staid ménage-à-trois intrigue. “When I was a kid, I hurt the boys I liked,” Meiko boastfully admits in her earlier spat with Kazuaki, justifying her present cruelty as flawed romanticism. Yet the petulant Meiko of this encounter—a kind of playground bully in her baggy sweatshirt with sleeves pulled over her hands—fades away in the later gathering of the three characters, which seems to generate in our protagonist a crucial dawning of lucidity. In the final shot, Meiko turns around and snaps a photo of the city, reversing the subjectivity of the opening scene in which she is the captured image. This gesture of intentional memory-making doubles as an act of closure, a means of sealing off a slice of life on her own terms. 

The title of the second story, “Door Wide Open,” refers to the literal open-door policy of Professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), a comically stoic novelist who opts for total transparency should he be accused of inappropriate conduct toward his students. Even when Sasaki (Kai Shouma) prostrates himself before Segawa in hopes of attaining a passing grade, the door remains wide open, allowing the young man’s peers to witness his ultimately fruitless act of humiliation. Five months later, Sasaki wants revenge: he recruits his friend-with-benefits, Nao (Mori Katsuki), to set a honey trap involving an office-hours seduction caught on record. A stifled housewife and mother, Nao is an outsider among her classmates. Though Sasaki threatens to ignore and withhold sex from Nao unless she aids him in his scheme, there’s a sense that she agrees in order to enact her own fantasy. When Nao watches Segawa, all grizzled and alluringly solemn, accept an important literary award on television, she is captivated by the image of the mysterious intellectual—a premonition of the sexual roleplay to come.

In the guise of a literary fangirl, Nao works relentlessly to break down Segawa’s straight-faced demeanour in an extended back-and-forth in his office, the centrepiece of which involves her reading aloud a long, sexually explicit passage from the professor’s acclaimed novel. This prolonged narration—often shot from outside the room looking in, with glimpses of passersby accentuating both the thrill of erotic exchanges taking place in plain sight and the paranoia of getting “caught”—is played for its effect on the professor, who absorbs and neutralizes each of Nao’s advances with seemingly unruffled sobriety. (“Were you erect when you wrote this?” she asks bluntly; “That’s what the passage must evoke,” he responds.) Yet as Nao’s intent to seduce becomes increasingly obvious, we begin to wonder whether Segawa is extraordinarily skilled at practicing restraint, or genuinely unaffected or oblivious (an ironic possibility, considering how vividly he writes about sexual exploits). Eventually, Nao admits she was recording their conversation, and Segawa—the great chronicler of human depths—reveals his naïve bewilderment. 

It’s at this point that the narrative shifts away from the realm of performance in which Nao is the kittenish student trying (and failing) to tempt Segawa the ascetic. Instead, the two characters engage in an intimate conversation about self-worth and success, which Hamaguchi captures as a series of alternating frontal shots at eye level. Thisstylistic change-up suggests a more honest, direct connection between Nao and Segawa, a baring of true selves that has its own kind of erotic potency. Poking fun at writerly narcissism, Hamaguchi also reveals that Segawa was not entirely immune to Nao’s seduction: the professor is struck by the beauty of Nao’s voice reading his work, and requests a copy of the recording for inspiration. Yet the racy audio file is both a symbol of a profound erotic bond and an incriminating piece of evidence: when Nao sends Segawa the recording by email, she accidentally delivers it to university administrators. Five years later, Nao encounters Sasaki on the bus. “My own stupidity makes me want to cry,” she confesses, less a sign of regret over the destruction of her domestic life than an expression of anguish over her unintentional betrayal; surely, Segawa interpreted her mistake as deliberate malice. The segment ends as Nao reverses roles with Sasaki, using the promise rather than the withholding of sex to manipulate him: she kisses him passionately, hoping to use his literary connections to contact her lost love. 

The first two parts of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy were shot prior to the pandemic; the third, “Once Again,” was filmed mid-lockdown. Hamaguchi subtly nods to the surreal state of things by placing the story in a fictive universe where a computer virus has disabled habitual use of the internet. This conceit only figures tangentially in the narrative, as a marker of time and banal commonalities for two middle-aged women drawn together by a bizarre double case of mistaken identity. In an escalator encounter that parallels the meet-cute of Asako and Baku in Asako I & II, the butch-ish Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) and demure Nana (Kawai Aoba) recognize one another as they pass by each other in the opposite direction. They eagerly rush to meet, and their enthusiasm leads to a kind of impromptu date at Nana’s house, which leads to the film’s third instance of “caressing” through conversation. Halfway through the chat, however, the two women realize they are not speaking to the person they thought they were. “You must’ve wanted to see her so badly,” observes Nana, a feeling that she herself experiences, though the nature of their relationships to these phantom doppelgangers vary in intensity. In any case, they may still be connected by “that hole in the heart.” And so as not to “waste the dramatic situation,” they decide to play-act as their respective mistaken identities, each providing the other an opportunity for healing and confession. 

This encounter recalls Hamaguchi’s 2016 short Heaven Seems So Far Away, in which a man living in perpetuity with the spectre of a murdered girl from his high school is interviewed by the girl’s still-grieving sister; though the man truly cansee the ghost, the sister takes a leap of faith—or simply suspends her disbelief—and speaks to her dead sibling through the man as a kind of therapy. Like Natsuko and Nana, it’s the sister’s willingness to pretend—to repress an apparent inconsistency—that forges a genuine emotional connection. Yet the ghost of Heaven Seems So Far Away feels significant beyond this particular link. Hamaguchi’s women are haunted by their memories of other people, by their misconceptions of what was and their speculations as to what could have been. In Happy Hour, Jun disappears following her court proceedings, with the implications of her silent departure and testimony (“Violence is not the only form of abuse”) quietly informing her girlfriends’ actions for the remainder of the film. For Asako, the memory of Baku persists in the form of Ryohei. 

“Who am I?” André Breton began Nadja. “Perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’” That novel, which sees Breton stumbling from random encounter to random encounter, reveals “the most decisive episodes of my life…in so far as it is at the mercy of chance.” Hamaguchi has always flirted with the disruptive potential of the unexpected, mining the peculiar dramatic possibilities afforded by the unearthed connections, random accidents, and twists of fate embedded in the textures of everyday life. For him as for Breton, “chance” appearances and outbursts of the repressed are what make existence tragic, interesting, fluid. Pleasantly neat and boring in its bourgeois minimalism, Hamaguchi’s Japan and the people within it are upended by coincidences and arbitrary upheavals; his experiences interviewing survivors and exploring the areas impacted by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, for a documentary trilogy he co-directed with Sakai Kou, surely informs his storytelling approach. (The most literal example of this takes place in Asako, in which the earthquake functions as a turning point for Asako and Ryohei’s relationship.) 

How do friendships and romances unfold when the next earthquake might be just around the corner? How to be at peace in this world knowing the ineluctability of our fates? In Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi’s women understand the need to break from the past that haunts them—not by erasing it or diminishing its importance, but by letting their own movement generate the conditions for restoration and recovery, whether in Meiko’s “coming-of-age,” Nao’s quest for redemption, or Natsuko and Nana’s relationship as a cathartic force of mutual recognition. The haunted past does not reduce these women to paralysis, but rather compels them to spring into action and forces their transformation. In conferring with their ghosts, they both come to terms with the past and glimpse the possibility of overcoming it. Loayza Beatrice