At the recent Chicago International Film Festival, Japanese writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Happy Hour, Intimacies) had something of a moment when two most recent films played at the event to much praise. The epic, three-hour Drive My Car is a tragic love story set in the world of the theater, and it features some of the most honest and emotionally raw conversations I’ve seen depicted on screen in recent memory. But the first to actually be released stateside is Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Movie, a three-story anthology that seems to take as its theme the role that chance and coincidence can play in screwing up or bettering our lives. Like Drive My Car, the stories all feature unusual tales of love—new relationships, a botched seduction plot, and a mistaken identity encounter that leads to a fulfilling exchange about regrets and elusive happiness.
In the first episode, Magic (or Something Less Assuring), a model and her best friend/hair stylist begin discussing the model’s new potential love interest, who seems like the perfect guy, until the friend silently realizes that she’s talking about her ex-boyfriend whom she cheated on two years earlier, breaking his heart possibly forever. She later confronts the ex, whom she might still love, and confesses that the breakup hurt her just as much, even though she’s the one who cheated. It’s up to her whether to expose this bizarre love triangle or simply let her ex-boyfriend have his first real shot at love again after she crushed him. Hamaguchi loves long, unbroken takes of conversation, and the one between the ex-lovers in Magic is devastating in so many ways, as the ex-boyfriend braces himself to be hurt twice by the same woman.
In Door Wide Open, a professor has just won a prestigious award for his latest book. A disgruntled former student plots with his lover (also a former student of the same professor) to destroy the man’s life for giving him a bad grade. They plot to record the professor in a compromising position with the female student. She attempts to seduce him by reading him erotic passages from his book, but the results are nothing like what she expected, and the two end up bonding over their outsider status, loneliness, and the way his book captures her feelings. It’s a lovely and melancholy conversation that ends up leaving us hopeful that both will come out the other side better people, until a mistakenly sent email changes everything.
Finally, Once Again finds a woman attending her high school reunion, hoping to run into her former lover, who does not attend. But on her way to the train station to head back to Tokyo, the woman spots her ex-girlfriend on the escalator. The long-lost ex is now married with children and seems uncertain if she’s happy in her quiet, unchallenging life. But at one point, the two realize they are not the people they thought the other was, and this has all been a case of mistaken identity. But instead of parting ways, they continue to talk about the biggest regrets of their teenage and college years, and even engage in role playing as the person they thought the other person was at first. What starts out as a silly idea turns into a heartfelt confessional for both women that leaves everyone (including the audience) feeling better about the possibilities of intimacy, friendship, and even romance than we did going in.
Each story in this triptych is intelligently and warmly written, even when things get heated at times, with no weak links among the three. Hamaguchi has such a gift for dialogue that even the characters comment on how difficult it is for those in the Japanese culture to speak so frankly without being humiliated or shamed. One must allow themselves to be carried through these deceptively simply stories and let their subtle, small moments wash over them. I almost wish there had been a fourth story to tie everything together, but that’s a minor quibble, and I can’t imagine it would have improved on the perfection that is Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.