Short stories don’t often get the respect they deserve, and short films — which the film industry has deemed worthless rather than figure out how to monetize — don’t often get any respect at all. Unless, that is, several of them are packaged to resemble a feature, like three kids stacked on top of each other inside a trenchcoat and trying to pass for a single adult.
A playful triptych of self-contained vignettes (complete with their own credit blocks) that are bound together by a shared fascination with memory, coincidence, and the deep truths that shallow lies tend to uncover, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s wonderfully beguiling “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is neither fish nor fowl. It feels more like a single film than it does a trio of smaller ones that have been stitched together into a makeshift anthology, but the finished product is only greater than the sum of its parts because Hamaguchi understands that the best short fiction isn’t just a travel-sized version of something bigger. On the contrary, the short stories he tells here are so delightful because they operate in a way that “long” ones don’t.
It’s the difference between a periscope and a panorama, as Hamaguchi’s tunnel vision liberates his characters from the pedantry of everyday logic. Looking at the world through such a narrow lens, the same twists of fate that might feel like cheap screenwriting in a feature are suddenly endowed with the authority of fact; the rom-com kismet of an oblivious Tokyo woman falling in love with her best friend’s ex (it’s a big city!) isn’t just something that happens to the people we meet in the opening scenes of “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” it’s the reason that all of them exist in the first place.
A natural progression for an emerging auteur whose previous wins include the 317-minute “Happy Hour” and the hall of mirrors romantic drama “Asako I & II” (both unabashedly Rohmerian in their own right), “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is another of Hamaguchi’s semi-charmed slices of life about modern Japanese women divided against themselves. This one is every bit as static and chatty as fans have come to expect; rooted to its two-actors-in-a-room reality, but also charming and characteristically unpredictable for the ways it wiggles free of it like a loose tooth.
The first chapter — enigmatically dubbed “Episode 1: Magic (or Something Less Assuring”) — kicks things off with a scalene love triangle that’s full of sharp angles. Meiko (Furukawa Kotone, star of last year’s exquisitely titled “Any Crybabies Around?”) is a fashion model who’s used to being the center of attention, and even in the backseat of a cab with her best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) we sense that it pains her to sit there and listen to someone else talk for 15 minutes about some guy they just met. We don’t know the half of it. By some fluke of the universe, Tsugumi’s new crush happens to be Meiko’s ex-boyfriend.
If Meiko lacks the heart to break the news to her friend, she also lacks the serenity not to confront her ex about it later that same night. What follows is a heated, funny, and wildly erratic scene of mutual self-immolation as Meiko and Kazuaki (Nakajima Ayumu) engage in the kind of flame war that can only erupt between two exes who see hurting people as a solution for loving each other. “Love is supposed to make people happy,” Meiko sighs. “I feel like a defective product.” “So do I,” Kazuaki replies. “I’m not even a dildo.” If only they realized how rare it is, given the vast spectrum of human emotion, to wind up at exactly the same place as some else you know.
But, as Tsugumi cautions earlier in the story, “Feeling at ease isn’t the same as romance,” and the subsequent chapters in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” mine their addictively mottled eros from their most uncomfortable moments of friction. “Episode 2: Door Wide Open” starts as a dull revenge plot about a college student who wants to catch his least favorite professor in a honeytrap, but crystallizes into something much stranger when the kid convinces the married older woman he’s sleeping with (Mori Katsuki as Nao) to be the bait.
Sexually charged but dripping with “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-levels of deadpan cringe, the scene where Nao confronts Professor Segawa (played Shibukawa Kiyohiko, star of such exquisitely titled films as “Touching the Skin of Eeriness” and “Chrysanthemum and Guillotine”) in his Tokyo University office and treats him to an unsolicited reading of his prize-winning erotic novel is Hamaguchi at his best, as lowbrow comedy blushes into high-minded wisdom in a way that Nao could never expect.
One minute she’s reading a sentence like “She treated my testicles like a little bird with a broken wing,” and the next she’s eagerly accepting the professor’s advice on how to push beyond the stagnant precepts of Japanese social mores and embrace her own value. The initial wariness of their encounter (the professor won’t even look Nao in the eyes) cascades into a veritable waterfall of reversals, each one of which makes Hamaguchi’s mumblecore aesthetic grow less aloof for its lack of choices, and more valuable for its sense of infinite possibility. Leave the right doors open in life and there’s no telling who might walk in.
If the dot-dash-dot structure of this second episode finds Hamaguchi using time to complicate and encrypt scenes that could otherwise play out in a black box theater, the film’s third and final story (“Once Again”) allows him to take things just a bit further and spin the “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” off its axle. Set in an alternate today where an email virus called Xeron has forced everyone to go offline, this segment doesn’t push too hard for a “sci-fi” designation (the most dramatic evidence of the crisis is that a kid has to buy his anime on Blu-ray because the streaming services are down) but Hamaguchi suffuses the short with a fugue-like sense of forgetting, as if the world had delegated its collective memory to the cloud and people can’t quite remember who they are without a wifi connection.
It starts when a woman named Natsuko (Urabe Fusako) arrives in Sendai for her 20-year college reunion, and spirals off in a new direction when she runs into an old classmate who didn’t get invited (Kawai Aoba, also of “Touching the Skin of Eeriness” fame). As with the other two episodes, “Once Again” begins slowly and pushes right up to the limits of banality before a sudden wrinkle in time wrests you forward in your seat.
Seen individually, these moments feel like strange quirks of the universe, but the way they ripple across Hamaguchi’s three stories suggests nothing less than the fullness of life pushing through the bland scrim that tends to obscure it. Try as they might to suppress the feelings they can’t relegate to the past or prevent from blooming in the future, the people we meet in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” only have so much say over where they’ll wind up when the world stops turning. Like us, all they can do is take pleasure in the fact that anything could happen next.
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.