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Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

2021 was Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s year. After making one of the best films of the last decade in Happy Hour (2015), a five-hour drama of dissolving love in contemporary Kobe, followed by the disturbing romance Asako I & II in 2018, he finally started to get the mainstream recognition he deserves last year.

Drive My Car, his most recent film, has been a huge success, and subject to universal acclaim. It’s been nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Hamaguchi, and it even showed up on Barack Obama’s list of his favourite films of 2021.

These dubious accolades aside, Drive My Car is a genuinely beautiful film. It’s based on a Haruki Murakami short story, but it’s more of a remix than a straightforward adaptation. Characters and events are moved around in space and time, and even the film’s iconic red Saab is yellow in the original. In the hands of Hamaguchi and his co-writer Takamasa Oe, Murakami’s story of a bereaved actor reflecting on his dead wife’s infidelity becomes a sophisticated literary epic.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, in cinemas only a few months after Drive My Car left, may be even better. In fact, its trio of short stories approach the heights of Happy Hour — while clocking in all together at a comparatively slim two hours.

Like in Hamaguchi’s previous films, the stories revolve around romantic relationships. In the first, a model discovers that her best friend’s new lover is her own ex; in the second, a married university student tries to seduce her lecturer as part of a honeypot scheme; and in the third, after a worldwide computer virus has wiped out online communications, a woman returning to her hometown mistakes a stranger for her high-school sweetheart.

Each of these three stories is told almost entirely through long conversations between two people, running mostly in real time. Like in Happy Hour, a dialogue scene in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy can easily run for twenty or thirty minutes by itself. Hamaguchi clearly delights in writing these scenes, and they are a delight to watch as well: natural, absorbing, and — always — spiky with tensions that are left unsaid.

For all its beauty, Drive My Car does sometimes get bogged down with novelistic detail and backstory that veers into the flippant or contrived. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, even with the scifi conceit of the final story, remains more grounded. As a result, it’s far more affecting, and closely felt, than Drive My Car’s relatively more showy drama. While Happy Hour remains Hamaguchi’s masterpiece, in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy he reaches similar heights of humane storytelling in a much shorter form.

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