The geometry of desire is elegantly plotted in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” a wistful, moving, outwardly unassuming movie. In three segments, men and women circle one another, talking and talking some more. As they exchange glances, confessions and accusations, their cascading words become either bridges or walls. Throughout these effusive roundelays, they yearn — for meaning, former lovers, lost intimacy, an escape.
“Fortune and Fantasy” is among the latest talkathons from the Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, one of the more intriguing filmmakers to emerge in the last decade. If you haven’t heard of him, it isn’t surprising. The American market for foreign-language cinema has always been brutal, even before the pandemic, and his work has received scant theatrical distribution in the United States. But he’s a familiar name on the festival circuit, and both this movie and his superb “Drive My Car” were in the main slate at the recent New York Film Festival. (“Fortune” won a major prize at this year’s Berlin.)
If Hamaguchi were another generic French filmmaker, or if he made gore-splattered genre movies or was just more obvious, he might attract greater distributor interest. Though maybe not: The length of some of his work likely presents a hurdle. While “Fortune and Fantasy” runs a crisp two hours, “Drive My Car” is three, and “Happy Hour,” an epic of minimalism, runs more than five. More challenging still, presumably, are his narrative choices and understated visuals, which don’t conform to the current template for American indie cinema with its dramatic problems, moral instruction and enough pictorial prettiness to make the emotional bloodletting go down smoothly.
Hamaguchi’s realism is as constructed as that of any Sundance selection, but what distinguishes his work is his attention to ambiguity and to everyday moments, and his general avoidance of dramatic or melodramatic inflection. Things happen, terrible, heartbreaking things, though not necessarily onscreen. Instead, most of what you see has the flavor, rhythm and texture of quotidian life, which makes his artistic choices all the more intriguing and at times almost mysterious. You’re engrossed, but you may wonder why. (Hamaguchi cites John Cassavetes as a strong influence; the imprint of the French New Wave and the South Korean director Hong Sangsoo are also evident.)
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is a perfect entry point into Hamaguchi’s work. Not every episode works equally well or hits as hard, but both times I watched this movie, I found something to admire, consider, argue with and weep over. The three stories are clearly separated with coy or cryptic or plainly descriptive titles. They have separate casts and each takes place in contemporary settings, though one has a modest, somewhat random splash of speculative fiction. Here, as in life, the most blandly familiar spaces — the back seat of a cab, a cluttered office, a living room — serve as unadorned stages for ordinary, existence-defining encounters.
All the episodes feature a handful of men and women, but the secondary characters soon peel off — a photo crew disperses, an assistant hustles out of an office — leaving two people who serve as conversational and emotional foils. The middle and longest story (“Door Wide Open”) centers on a woman who’s persuaded, if not entirely convincingly, by her younger male lover to become a honey trap for his loathed former professor. She does, putting on makeup and visiting the professor at his office. Although he insists that the door remain open, danger seeps in anyway, through a probing, teasingly erotic and unexpectedly existential tête-à-tête that changes everyone’s life.
Hamaguchi doesn’t move the camera all that much, which makes the moments when he draws attention to his visuals more noticeable, like the punctuating tilt up at a flowering tree that closes the first story. However subtly, he distinctly choreographs each episode, using the camera and staging to underscore eddies of harmony and dissonance, shifting moods and awareness. In some scenes, characters sit side by side in the same shot, which underscores their familiarity; in others, they are isolated in the frame to accentuate their detachment or antagonism. In several crucial instances, characters look directly at the camera, a jolt of intimacy — but now between you and them.
Mostly, though, these men and women talk, revealing themselves as they also tease the story’s themes, fortune and fantasy included. They chat, confess, overshare, open up and lash out. In the first story, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” a young woman confronts a former boyfriend by sneeringly repeating some blandishments that he’d shared with another lover, wounding him and, in the process, exposing the miserable arc of their failed relationship. There’s more tenderness in the final story, “Once Again,” which beautifully brings the movie to a close through two women with faulty memories who, by opening their hearts to each other, quietly break yours.
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