Note: Some story beats in all three segments that may be considered light spoilers are discussed in this review.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has had, as they say, quite a year. Drive My Car unexpectedly emerged as the critical darling of 2021, unexpectedly winning the Best Picture prize from both the Los Angeles and New York film critics organizations. But right next to this acclaimed three-hour epic film – arguably the most ambitious of last year – was another film from him; a modest anthology series of short self-contained stories exploring everyday people struggling to express themselves romantically in semi-comic and semi-tragic settings called Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. And damn me, but I find myself in the position of having to argue for it as the superior effort from him.
In my positive-but-not-unqualified review of Drive My Car, I compared it to Burning, another dizzyingly expansive adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story receiving near-unanimous critical adulation that didn’t quite match up with my own reaction. With Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, I can’t help but recall when Cate Blanchett’s Cannes Film Festival jury decided to defy the critics and pundit predictions for Burning and instead awarded their Palme d’Or that year to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. When asked for a rationale, Blanchett expressed the jury’s belief that Shoplifters, more than any other competitor that year, didn’t make an impression through a single standout scene or performance, but through every single element humbly working in perfect harmony together.
There is a similar magic being worked in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which is all the more remarkable since it’s not telling a single feature-length narrative. It’s three narratively separate forty-minute vignettes all tied together with the same general themes of romance being complicated through communication and perception mistakes. Nearly all anthology movies I’ve seen have the exact same problem – there’s always one segment that’s very clearly better than all the others (think “The Hard Goodbye” in Sin City) and usually one that is so much worse than all of the others (think “Nancy’s Last Dance” in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For). So imagine my delighted surprise when none of the three shorts here ended up an albatross. They are all wonderful little fables in their own right, and amazingly, complement each other in ways that I can’t remember any anthology film achieving in the last twenty years at least.
Okay, so perhaps the middle one – “Door Wide Open” – could be argued as the weakest of the three. It’s certainly the one with the most downbeat ending, and takes the most risks in raunchier humor and a morally dubious premise. But much like the other three, it successfully sets itself up as one kind of interpersonal conflict subtly shifting into a different kind of interaction, and then jumping forward in time and ending on another transformed note. While the excerpt from the professor’s book is sexually explicit in a way that may repulse some viewers, what matters more isn’t the content of that risqué passage but how Segawa and Nao feel about it. This was supposed to be the first step in a malicious seduction, yet actually reading the words to the man who wrote them awakens unrequited desires and insecurities in Nao; action obliterating intention in that very moment. This is a recurring development across all three vignettes.
This part is preceded by “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” once again cleverly playing with how our relationships and perceptions of other people are often defined by how they are described and perceived by others, not just ourselves. Meiko, Tsugumi, and Kazuaki are caught in a love triangle, but Kazuaki is not aware of this until he’s confronted about it by a still-smitten Meiko, and Tsugumi is never aware of this conflict. At no point is any one character truly fully aware of the feelings and actions of the other two, but we are, and the joy of this segment is watching how these three characters’ decisions are informed by their own pieces of incomplete information about the others. What we learn about these characters and where they end up in just forty minutes is more involving and fully-realized than most feature-length films.
The final segment dips its toes into light science fiction, and while I was initially worried that such a seemingly contrived worldwide computer virus setup would sink “Once Again,” what results from this speculative internet-less setting may be the most touching of the three. Natsuko and Aya would never have found themselves in such a prolonged misunderstanding in the age of smartphones and Facebook, but their specific hang-ups and emotional needs couldn’t be expressed so openly before the advent of the internet. It’s an unusual means to get these characters together in a short but profound meeting, but it works in the end, aided especially by the moving performances of Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai.
So many filmmakers these days seem to operate under the belief that people aren’t complicated and stressful and conflict-ridden enough to sustain a good story on their own. That the only way to get viewers interested is to sweep them up into Majestic Narratives and Multiple Overarching Conflicts rendering individuals as mere passengers in the machinations of its writer/director, like pieces on a chessboard. While I am certainly up for a big grand yarn at the movies, there is also something to be treasured about filmmakers like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sean Baker, Rebecca Hall, and yes, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi keeping the faith that human beings and their feelings, by themselves, are inherently interesting. The small-but-essential insights of what make us all endlessly fascinating and frustrating in equal measure is demonstrated not once, not twice, but three times in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.