The Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi was hurtled into the spotlight earlier this year when he received four Oscar nominations — and a win — for his silken Murakami adaptation Drive My Car, an arthouse crossover hit praised by many as one of the year’s best films.
In that 3-hour epic, the lives of characters are sent spinning by totally random, freakish interventions, like a cold snap in Vladivostok that, butterfly effect-style, ruptures a relationship in Tokyo.
His latest film, the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear-winning drama Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, might be smaller in scope, tighter in focus and just a little too odd to inspire repeat commercial success at that level — but these qualities can also be seen as its strengths.
In short, the film is a perfect distillation of Hamaguchi’s particular talents and peculiar obsessions, doubling down on his pet themes: chance, coincidence and the feeling of latent possibility hiding inside even the most prosaic daily interactions.
The result is a fleet-footed, wistful triptych like little else playing in theaters right now — three short stories, all written by Hamaguchi, bundled into the one feather-light film in which women of different generations find themselves buffeted by the winds of fate .
Hamaguchi has described the three stories as studies, investigating what it takes to make Sliding Doors-style life-bending encounters in fiction feel believable rather than false; truthful rather than just convenient, hokey and cheap.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy nods particularly to the work of similarly playful French New Wave directors like Jacques Rivette and Éric Rohmer, whose 1995 triptych Rendez-vous in Paris Hamaguchi has cited as an influence.
The first story, titled Magic (or Something Less Reassuring), is a clumsy not-quite-love triangle in which Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a young model with flashing eyes and a bob haircut as sharp as her tongue, shares a late- night cab ride home with her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri).
In the course of their conversation, Meiko discovers that the man Tsugumi recently met and shared a bewitching evening with is actually Meiko’s ex Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) — a fact she chooses not to disclose and that we only learn later when Meiko drops off her friend , turns the taxi around and heads straight to confront Kazuaki at his office.
At once an austere boxed-in drama, marked by lots of words and little camera movement, and an existential study of jealousy, lust and power, the tale is electrified by the audience’s knowledge that for every piece of information proffered, another is withheld.
The motives of each character remain thrillingly ambiguous — a quality that extends to the second story, Door Wide Open.
It begins as a tawdry tale: when Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), a weary-looking university professor, refuses to improve his student’s grade, the young man (Shouma Kai) enlists his girlfriend Nao (Katsuki Mori) to try and seduce Segawa in the hope of getting him fired — the term “honey trap” is actually used.
But in the course of the seduction, something shifts gears and Nao is drawn in by Segawa’s words.
As in so many of the finest moments in Hamaguchi’s work — among them, the workshop scenes of his lauded 2015 ensemble film Happy Hour and the actor’s rehearsal sequences in Drive My Car – something hard to pin down but undeniably tangible is happening here, as if the very atoms of the air were recalibrating around his characters.
This feeling of transformation, of the flimsy borderlines between fantasy and reality collapsing in upon themselves, is felt most powerfully, though, in the final, sci-fi inflected story, Once Again.
Moka (Fusako Urabe) has traveled alone from Tokyo to Sendai to attend her 20-year high school reunion. Unsurprisingly, the event is a distant, uncomfortable affair — a feeling that’s perhaps amplified in this near-future world, in which an email virus has effectively wiped out the internet, leaving people to communicate through quaint old-school means like landline telephones.
Mocha leaves, looking both relieved and disappointed, when suddenly, while riding an escalator on the street, she appears to randomly bump into an old lover.
The woman, Nana (Aoba Kawai), catches her eye and turns around to greet Moka, and they decide to go to Nana’s house – though an awkwardness hangs over their conversation that can’t be shaken off.
What happens next is all conducted in brief words, glances and gestures, but lands with the force of a Jean-Claude Van Damme high-kick.
The two women engage in a bizarre game of identity-swapping that betrays their need for human connection.
All through the vignettes of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, there are intensely seductive moments like this, of human desire and plangent yearning, of kindness, cruelty and disgust.
But an imaginative element is also always lurking and Hamaguchi clearly delights in the possibilities of performance and the spaces that it can cleave open.
These three short stories may be small and contained, but, like a Proustian madeleine, they each act as gateways to buried memories and nourishing fantasy.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is in cinemas April 28.