The phrase “magical realism” implies the meeting of the mundane and the otherworldly. Few directors have crystallized that dichotomy like Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, one of the preeminent Japanese filmmakers of the past decade, whose work consistently bridges the all-too-familiar and the completely unknown. Though he’s been making films since the late Aughts, Hamaguchi finally broke through in the United States with what on its surface might seem like his most inaccessible work — the six-hour Happy Hour, which centers on four female friends whose circular lives are intimately bound up in one another. His latest, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (opening this week at the Belcourt), is one of two feature films he released in 2021, alongside Drive My Car (opening Dec. 29 at the Belcourt).
Despite the shape described by its title, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy appears on its surface to be more triangular than round, but its three separate moral tales all do indeed come full circle: Each third is focused on one of three women, who are at similarly chaotic junctures in their lives and grappling with unraveling layers of buried feelings. The term triptych seems more befitting than anthology or compendium, despite the obviously literary quality of Hamaguchi’s storytelling, as these three lives are separate but parallel. Hamaguchi was a student of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for unsettlingly existential horror movies like Pulse and Cure, and he co-wrote his teacher’s most recent film, The Wife of a Spy. Both filmmakers construct something of an uncanny valley, but unlike Kurosawa, who peels back the bland veneer of reality to expose cosmic dread, Hamaguchi finds deep and sincere connection between human beings.
In the first episode of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, two women bond over their relationship histories — only for one member of the pair to realize that a man described by the other is her ex-lover. That prompts emotional outbursts and the reignition of long-buried feelings between two former partners who seem similarly committed to self-sabotage. In the second part of the film, a bitter college student convinces his older girlfriend to ensnare a professor he dislikes in a “honey trap” after she admits to being turned on by an erotic passage in the professor’s award-winning novel. It’s a situation that deals with loaded subject matter that might leave you sitting on a dreadful edge, only for Hamaguchi to disarm the situation in the most surprising way possible, as a deeply uncomfortable scenario becomes unexpectedly moving and affirming for the aging professor and the woman uncomfortably coerced into tempting him.
The third and final encounter has the most explicitly surreal context, set in a speculative reality in which a computer virus leaks everyone’s secrets and forces a return to more primitive forms of telecommunications. A woman returns home for a high school reunion, hoping to confront a former partner she hasn’t seen in years, only to confuse a woman she’s never met for her lost love. After the initial awkwardness and disappointment of mistaken identity fades, the two strangers bond over the losses in their lives, and even engage in a bit of therapeutic role-play as they imagine the confrontations they wish they could have.
Hamaguchi’s color palette is drained and muted but still alive: all cotton whites, soft grays and stonewashed blues, like a Brandy Melville catalog. The camera is sometimes straight-on, confronting us with the fragile contours and teary eyes of the human face, but regardless of position, our perspective is frequently static, with characters on screen similarly withdrawn in their physical expression. The words they say are melodramatic, but captured in a way that’s restrained and guarded, which in some ways only enhances the emotionality, the heartbreak, the anguish. Every scene is underwritten with a sense of calm that in one moment can feel warming and restorative, and in the next frigid and isolating.
The plot, too, is pure melodrama, a circuit of relationships founded on coincidences, dramatic ironies and startling revelations. There’s a feeling of mysterious uncertainty, but what’s hidden and waiting to be uncovered are the emotions and truths that we keep inside, not the twists or revelations of more conventional movie plots — more unknown than the supernatural or any alternate reality is the interior of another human being. Though the feelings are recognizable, Hamaguchi’s presentation makes relatable emotions startlingly new, reframing our perspective through the simplest of visual suggestions.
At one moment in the second episode, when the woman who wants to tempt a literary professor confesses her genuine love of his novel, she admits she hasn’t read many other books. “I’m envious of that,” the professor says sincerely, implying that he’s jealous of all the words, images and experiences she has yet to absorb. Hamaguchi’s films similarly remind me that there are endless perspectives to observe from, infinite ways to reframe or interpret a memory, and still undiscovered depths of the human heart to sink into.