One of last year’s most impressive films was Drive My Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s elegant and engrossing adaptation of two stories by Haruki Murakami. Its title alludes to the relationship, central but understated, between a theatre director and the taciturn female chauffeur who ferries him around between rehearsals. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy premiered at the 2021 Berlin film festival several months before Drive My Car zoomed into Cannes (both movies won awards) and comprises three separate stories written and directed by Hamaguchi, the first two shot in 2019 and the third during the pandemic. An international virus crops up in the final instalment, though it only affects computers, and the repercussions are rather quaint: online correspondence is abandoned in favour of the handwritten variety.
No chauffeurs this time around, but modes of transport still play a vital part. The first story (“Magic, or Something Less Assuring”) features a long scene in the back of a taxi, the second (“Door Wide Open”) an uncomfortable reunion on a bus. The third (“Once Again”) finds two women travelling in opposite directions on adjacent escalators when they suddenly recognise one another. Overcome with excitement, they ride their respective escalators to the end and then immediately jump on to the other, so that again they pass each other going in opposite directions. Their failure to synchronise is achingly funny.
Each story focuses on the romantic expectations of Japanese women, and takes the form of a triangle of sorts – a love triangle in the first part, a revenge plot in the second, a friendship in the third – in which one person is held at arm’s length or absent altogether. Another common feature is an intimate conversation recounted to a third party. Rather than witnessing the flirtatious meeting between Tsugumi (Hyunri) and a prospective boyfriend, we hear about it instead when she talks to her friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa). As she listens, Meiko twigs that the dreamboat in question is her own ex. Hearing Tsugumi rhapsodise about him stirs up feelings of jealousy and desire.
In the second part, Sasaki (Shouma Kai) persuades Nao (Katsuki Mori), his friend-with-benefits, to stage a honeytrap to discredit the college professor who failed him; the intimate conversation in that instance is a secret recording made by Nao. The final conversation is a role-playing game in which two long-lost school friends – those escalator women, Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) and Aya (Aoba Kawai) – reveal to one another what they wish they could have said to the people who broke their hearts.
Portmanteau films have a decent track record, from Dead of Night (1945) to Wild Tales (2014), but it is risky to ask the audience to recalibrate at regular intervals. A narrative, like a heartbeat, can’t afford to stop; interruptions can be perilous. Unless, that is, the stories enhance one other, encouraging us to think more deeply than we might have done if these were standalone shorts. That was notably the case in Éric Rohmer’s Rendez-vous in Paris (1995). In fact, it was a conversation with Mary Stephen, the Chinese-Canadian editor of Rohmer’s film, that convinced Hamaguchi to attempt a portmanteau project using some of the same components: romantic idealism, regret, infidelity. And, most of all, coincidence. As Meiko’s ex tells her: “It’s rather hard to believe.”
That we do believe is a testament to Hamaguchi’s control of tone and rhythm. He handles the material with a cool, reflective melancholy and a willingness to be amused that doesn’t preclude gravitas. He stages lengthy dialogue scenes with a static camera, which makes it disproportionately electrifying whenever there’s a zoom shot, or a cut to a character’s point of view. Tiny details sing. A late-night confrontation in an office towards the start of the film is lent a mournful accent by the presence of eight or nine balloons; the party is, literally, over. The balloons are white and blue, as are Natsuko and Aya’s clothes in the final episode.
Any sadness at leaving behind each set of characters is tempered by our confidence that the director will sustain mood and meaning. Hamaguchi is adept at the piercing confession, casually delivered but anchored by yearning. “I feel I’ll get scolded if I say I’m not happy,” sighs Aya, who also admits: “I’m not passionate about anything any more.” She might feel differently if she had access to the films of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. But she doesn’t. She’s in one.
[See also: Steven Spielberg’s sunny take on West Side Story]
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game