One of the few things that may be keeping Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2015 film Happy Hour from being recognized as one of the great films of the 2010s is its length: At over five hours, its drama of mid-30s women wrestling with their place in life is undoubtedly imposing, regardless of the fact that Hamaguchi’s style is clean and crisp, underscored by shadows of mystery, with none of the arduous challenge usually presented by lengthy art films. Possibly if it had been presented in the format of a multi-episode series, its audience would have easily found it. Hamaguchi’s follow-up, Asako I & II, broke things up cleverly by segmenting its Vertigo-esque story of lovers lost and found into two parts. Now, the Japanese director’s latest, the sly and intriguing portmanteau Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which is premiering in Berlin's main competition, helps the audience by being a compendium of three short stories, not directly connected but all coyly sharing heroines confronting their notions of self and desire in varying intensities of psychosexual drama.
In the first, an older woman (Hyunri) recounts to a younger (Kotone Furukawa) during a lengthy after-work car ride the story of her first electric encounter with a new lover (Ayumu Nakajima). Initially encouraging and happy for her love-struck friend, the young woman subsequently learns that she has been listening to a love affair with her own ex-boyfriend (“A terrible coincidence, isn’t it?” she observes). She then confronts him and faces the decision of whether to hold onto his affection or leave him for her friend to love. The central pivot of the story, from a charged romantic rendezvous left entirely to our imagination and conjured by Hyunri’s awed storytelling, to the confrontation between ex-lovers that refers only to their past relationship, exhibits how Hamaguchi’s seemingly realist dramas always exist on top of a shadow world of the unseen, a world that holds equal parts promise and threat. Taking place mostly at night, the film’s sleek, nocturnal palette evokes all the possibilities that exist in the dark.
In the second tale, an older, married female college student (Katsuki Mori) is goaded by her softly muscly, mop-headed student lover (Shouma Kai) into seducing a famous professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who shamed him in the past. That seduction, taking place in the professor’s office and involving an erotic excerpt from his new book, blurs the motivations of the woman between vengeance, eroticism, and her own sense of identity. What she wants, moving from her young lover to this eerily stoic and abstracted older man, and later back to her family, cannot be neatly contained or defined. She plays with the student; she roleplays the seduction of a man she is indeed impressed by; and both scenarios already exist outside her domestic life, suggesting at least three sides of her personality. In the process, she seems to lose a bit of herself, and the film movingly, cruelly jumps forward in time to show the spiritual repercussions of her questing desire.
In the last story and the one with the most beautiful premise, two women (Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai) recognize each other as high school classmates from decades ago; but upon spending more time together, they realize each mistook the other and they are in fact strangers. The film effortlessly segues from the joy of their reconnecting to their existential dread of the mistake. “You must have a hole with nothing to fill it. We must be connected through this hole,” remarks one of the women, as the two reach an understanding despite their crisscrossed memories and asymmetrical desires. In the end, a kind of healing is found when the two roleplay meeting the students—and for one, the lover—each thought the other was.
In each of these stories, a self-contained woman inadvertently enters the world of another, a confrontation of perspectives and yearning that renders slippery the lines between what is longed for, what is real before them, and what is fantasy. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, in its masterfully unassuming simplicity, embodies that quality of Eric Rohmer’s films in which characters certain of themselves are gradually taken aback by human interactions. As often happens in life, in these movies being with other people has the power to crack the façade of individual certainty—of identity, of morality, of the very workings of the world—and force a reckoning of character and being.