I love Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s films.
I first saw his five hour marathon film Happy Hour at a film festival in 2015 and became an instant fan. I was impressed with his 2018 follow up film Asako I&II (寝ても覚めても).
So I was excited to see “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy 偶然と想像”.
The movie lived up to my expectations and left me feeling thankful to have seen something that felt true and meaningful in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
The film is three stories placed side by side to make one film. A triptych.
The stories are totally independent and don’t have any continuing story or common characters.
There is, however, common music that runs across the three sections, which helps provide a sense of unity. There themes within the stories that are related also.
One of the central commonalities binding the stories together is a focus on the idea of embarrassment or awkwardness.
We see characters, deep, realistic, complex characters, that are thrust into situations that make you want to pull your hat down over your face. It’s kind of excruciating to watch.
But intriguing. And I believe it is this very excruciating nature that was of interest to the director.
So, in the first film we see a woman relating in gushing detail how she has just had a magical encounter with a man. We soon realise that the person she is speaking to is actually the man’s ex-partner, with unresolved issues from the relationship.
In the second story, we see a university lecturer squirm as a student visits his office and begins to read back the most graphically depicted sex scenes from his novel.
In film number three, we see two middle aged women meet up after some twenty years of not seeing each other, go back to one of their houses for a deep-and-meaningful talk about the past, before the women realise that they are actually random strangers who both thought the other person was someone else.
The thing about these films, as with the other Hamaguchi films I have seen, that sets them apart is the realism. The characters are not good or bad, smart or dumb, sexy or plain, but genuinely real to life mix of all the above.
They describe in detail to other characters in the film, and thus to the audience, the complex, fluid, contradictory thought patterns they are experiencing in their heads. There is never the sense that they are talking to progress the story, as “dialogue”. Most of what they say comes across in meandering, sometimes purposeful, sometimes not, speech. It’s just like real life.
In this way, Mizoguchi’s films can be seen as an extension of the elaborate slice-of-life films of classic Japanese directors such as Yasujiru Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.
In another context, Hamaguchi’s films perhaps also run in parallel with English Kitchen Sink Realism of the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. But without the overtly “social message” commentary you find in some films from this genre.
The other thing that binds the three film’s in Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fantasy and Fortune is the theme of unrequited desire. All the characters are searching for one kind of love or another. Whether it is the lesbian who has realised that she let her one true love get away many years ago as a teenager and is now trying to “fill a whole”, or the house wife who has serial intimacy and is unable to satisfy her urge for something more intangible, or the man who can’t find it in himself to fully get over a toxic relationship with a previous lover, even though he has found a new and “magical” lover to be with.
Everyone is searching for a love that seems to ever be slipping between their fingers.
These two themes, of people being placed in awkward, chance situations, and of people yearning for something more in their emotional lives, fits in with the Japanese version of the title 偶然と想像 which translates as “Chance and Imagination”.
The films seem to assert that life is a complex mixture between random external factors and imagined internal ones. In this way, the film reminds me thematically of Woody Allen’s Match Point which weaves in narratives of desire and luck.
Whatever chance it was that led me to encounter Hamaguchi’s films, I am indeed grateful for his own fully requited imagination.