‘Fortune’ is a paradoxical thing. It can refer to a coincidence, or to something that is preordained. A ‘fantasy’ can be imagined – a daydream – or supernatural. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a triptych of complementary shorts which explore themes of chance and fate, magic and imagination. First, two young women discuss the perfect date. Then, the wheel turns, and a bitter undergraduate plots revenge against a professor. Finally, in another spoke, a lonely woman has a serendipitous meeting on the way home from a school reunion. At the helm, Hamaguchi guides us expertly through a film that is at times discomfiting and heart-breaking, but with a touch so light that we are left only with feelings of nostalgia and tenderness.

As a director, Hamaguchi has an interesting philosophy. He prefers his actors to rehearse their lines in monotonous table reads and then, once word-perfect, they are allowed to explore nuances in medium or long shots. This quickly becomes apparent in the opening short, ‘Magic, or Something Less Assuring’. Here, young model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and art director Tsugumi (Hyunri) sit in the back of a taxi discussing Tsugumi’s new boyfriend. Unlike other men she knows, this one is willing to open up about painful emotions, and spent much of their first date dissecting his previous relationship with a woman who broke his heart. While this scene was not entirely shot in one take, the camera holds on the women for a long time, and Furukawa’s performance, in particular, is magnetic, giving expertly subtle hints over the course of a painfully naturalistic interaction that she knows something Tsugumi does not. Indeed, once Tsugumi reaches her stop, Meiko asks the driver to head back the other way and, as luck (or fate) would have it, the man she wants to see is already known to us.

In ‘Door Wide Open’ we follow Sasaki (Shouma Kai), a university student who feels humiliated by his French professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa). Sasaki decides to ask mature student Nao (Katsuki Mori) to set a ‘honey trap’ for Segawa, in hopes of causing a scandal. Nao, who is married but thrilled by the younger man’s attentions, agrees, attempting to seduce Segawa with a sexually explicit passage from his own prizewinning novel. The short’s longest scene takes place in Segawa’s office. Here, Shibukawa presents a man who is socially awkward, unaware of Nao’s intentions, but a dedicated professional; as with Sasaki, who prostrated himself to beg for mercy, Segawa asks that the door to his office remain open. Mori, meanwhile, gives a rich, nuanced performance, choosing to recite the passage in a monotonous voice, adding to the at times excruciating atmosphere. Again, Hamaguchi’s rehearsal technique comes into play. By forcing actors into these enclosed spaces and letting them find hidden meanings in real-time, the performances evolve naturally, and scenes stretch and stretch until the tension is unbearable.

The third and final story, ‘Once Again’, plays out like a more hopeful version of Brief Encounter. We follow Natsuko (Fusako Urabe), who attends a disappointing high school reunion before running into Aya (Aoba Kawai) on the way home. As it happens, Aya is exactly the person Natsuko wanted to see. They begin to reminisce, and as Natsuko builds up to a confession, Aya suddenly realises that something is amiss. Urabe and Kawai have palpable chemistry: flashes of longing, mutual affection, sparkling sweetness. There is tension here, too, but of a different kind. It is impossible not to be charmed by their relationship, and to want the best for these two people, both lonely in their own ways. Here, Hamaguchi attempts two different kinds of fantasies, but the plot’s main conceit (that in 2019 a computer virus caused everyone to revert back to telegrams and so on) is a strange one, and ultimately unnecessary. However, the short does not suffer, and in fact, once the women meet, it is easy to forget that little expository intertitle.

From intense, sometimes suffocating interiors, to more hopeful sunlit exteriors, Yukiko Iioka’s cinematography captures the natural within the supernatural. Even in the one moment that might truly be fantastical, we never lose our grip on reality. We hold on characters at slight distance, watching their faces as they make important decisions. There are no extravagant visual choices; the most dynamic camera movement is a crash zoom on Meiko’s face, hidden in her hands. The simplicity works wonders, not only allowing actors more freedom to both find and set the tone (Ayumu Nakajima as Kazuaki, Tsugumi’s new boyfriend, dominates his first scene in ‘Magic…’), but also elevating the film to something that is so naturalistic it welcomes supernatural interpretation.

Verdict

The film’s original title translates to Coincidence and Imagination, which is much more specific than our localisation. There is ambiguity in ‘fortune’ and ‘fantasy’, as well as the titular ‘wheel’. Could it be a roulette wheel, as characters gamble on and take chances with their lives? Or does it refer to the cyclical nature of life symbolised by the dharmachakra? However audiences choose to interpret it, Hamaguchi’s film is a masterpiece: funny, awkward, moving, and something that sticks in the mind long after its final moments.