November 5, 2021

Film

Performance art: ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’

By Luke McCarthy

Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai in ‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’. Image © Neopa / Fictive

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest film, keenly observing human behaviour, considers the tension between the real and the affected

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s camera is mostly static, moving very rarely, if at all. It is an observer, yes, but not an impassive one. At various points his characters address the camera directly, face and body centre of frame, speaking as if the material world has melted away with nothing but the raw, contradictory details of verbal expression left in its wake. At other times his camera is curiously distant. We see, with few cuts, whole scenes played out almost entirely in master shot. Key to this approach – and much of Hamaguchi’s cinema more generally – is an underlying trust in his audience. Hamaguchi’s camera observes but, perhaps more pointedly, it also asks us to observe in the process.

This observant sensibility can be found in much of Hamaguchi’s work, and with it comes a deep-seated respect for the complex, at times inscrutable emotions that drive many of his characters. The director made a name for himself on the festival circuit with 2015’s intimate epic Happy Hour (running at 317 minutes), a masterfully structured, exceedingly literary work that detailed the intersecting lives of four middle-aged women in Kobe, Japan. Hamaguchi continued to impress with 2018’s Asako I + II. Based on a novel of the same name, the film told the story of Asako, a woman who over the course of her life falls for two men who look – for all intents and purposes – identical.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is the latest addition to Hamaguchi’s already remarkable body of work, cementing his status as one of his generation’s premiere talents. The film comprises three separate short stories, the cosmic hand of chance playing a key role in each. Opening with the aptly titled “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”, this first chapter details a terrifically complicated love triangle, one in which only two of its three participants are to be made aware of. This is followed by “Door Wide Open”, which follows two students’ comical, erotically charged attempt to catch out their teacher in a scandal. The most touching of the three narratives, “Once Again”, tells the tale of two women who, through a seemingly random encounter, mistakenly come to believe that the other is a long-lost friend, perhaps even lover, from their teenage years.

With its elegant, restrained style – narratives built upon the minutia of conversation and miscommunication – Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, like the rest of the director’s work, seems to draw explicitly from the verbose dramatics of French New Wave director Éric Rohmer. Rohmer’s influence on Hamaguchi is clear, most evident in their shared reverence for conversation (in interviews Hamaguchi has also noted Rohmer’s terrific 1995 anthology Rendezvous in Paris as a key influence for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy). As in Rohmer’s work, Hamaguchi’s characters talk at length about the world, about others, about themselves. In these conversations, rife with pathos and contradiction, one gets to understand a character not only through their actions, but through how they themselves interpret these actions. Yet very much unlike the work of the devoutly Catholic Rohmer, there is a distinctly erotic sensibility driving many of Hamaguchi’s characters to act in the way they do. For Rohmer, lust was something that his protagonists generally struggled to suppress, whereas Hamaguchi’s cinema tends to ask: what happens to those who cannot?

In this way, the emotional landscape of Wheel is rocky and diverse, each story small in scope yet melodramatic in detail. This taste for the melodramatic is a welcome one, illustrating in Hamaguchi’s writing a real love for the mechanics of pure, unaffected drama. Hamaguchi’s subdued tone works to ground these theatrics, even the boldest of gestures here executed with a clear-minded emotional specificity. Speaking to Film Comment, the director talked about this when discussing his rehearsal process, noting: “reading the script again and again – without emotion, just getting it hardwired into your head – enables you to say something naturally, even something that is a total, maybe even unrealistic, lie. The words become convincing, fully fleshed, in a very natural way.”

In many ways, this tension between what is real and what is performed is something that each character in Wheel must reckon with, and this is perhaps most evident in the film’s final tale, “Once Again”. In this story, after their somewhat surreal encounter on the street, the reunited Moka (Fusako Urabe) and Nana (Aoba Kawai) both head back to Nana’s house to reminisce. As the pair continue to talk, it soon becomes clear that this reunion is nothing of the sort: each has mistaken the other for someone else.

Perhaps out of awkwardness, perhaps because it feels strangely safe to discuss these things in the company of a stranger, the two women continue to talk, and the conversation between them becomes increasingly intimate and open-hearted. Moka reveals that she believed Nana to be her first love, a woman who she had fallen for but not fought for in her teenage years. Nana suddenly asks Moka: what if I pretend to be the person that you thought I was? What if you told me all the things you wanted to say? And Moka does.

This moment between the two is a performance, not real in any objective sense of the word. Yet watching this scene play out, so tender and achingly sincere, one can’t help but ask: does that really matter? Each story in the film is centred around a pivotal moment similar to this one, the line between performance and truth blurred so much as to almost appear invisible. There is a richness to these scenes: Hamaguchi’s simple dialogue reverberates with multiple, intersecting meanings, and the mundane complexities of human interaction are imbued with an almost cosmic ambiguity. Though we may attribute our fate to the unknown whims of fantasy or fortune, human behaviour is, at times, just as mysterious. After all, is that not why we – like many of the characters in this film – spend so much of our lives talking about it?

 

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is showing at the Sydney Film Festival, which runs until November 21.

Luke McCarthy

Luke McCarthy is a filmmaker, writer and critic living in Naarm / Melbourne. He has written for The Guardian, ABC and The Big Issue, among other publications.

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