Expectations are funny things. Pick up a collection of short stories from the library, and there will be little expectation that anything ties the stories contained other than the author or a given subject matter. Beyond that, the individual stories can go any direction they want.
That is not entirely true of cinema. Association often suggests relation, and feature films comprising multiple stories cannot simply exist side-by-side without at least some overlap. Think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Trilogy of Death from the early years of the 21st century: Amores perros, 21 Grams, and Babel. What starts as something that feels detached is revealed to be connected, shedding light on a greater truth about the human condition.
One of the beauties of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is that writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi resists that premise at every turn. Wheel is comprised of three sections, each one a story onto itself. The characters do not mix across stories, nor do they take place on common ground narrower than the continent of Japan. And yet, when it’s over, Wheel doesn’t feel like a piecemealed series of appetizers and small bites but a full course meal.
The translation of the original Japanese title lays it out bluntly: Coincidence and Imagination. I’m glad they went with the more poetic Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy for the English release. Coincidence certainly plays a role in all three stories, but the imagination aspect feels more like a charge Hamaguchi assigned to himself: If person X crossed paths with person Y, what would happen?
And that’s precisely what we get, Hamaguchi’s imagination running wild with simple encounters. In “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” Gumi (Hyunri) tells friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) that’s she’s met a man. They’ve gone on one date, and they did not go all the way. Gumi and Meiko debate the merits of sex, and at what step in the dating process it should occur, with all the candor of close friends. But when Gumi’s date, Kazu (Ayumu Nakajima), shows up for coffee, Meiko is surprised to find herself face-to-face with an ex. “Door Wide Open” also involves a love triangle of sorts, this time between student Sasaki (Shouma Kai) seeking revenge on his professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who refuses to pass him. Segawa has just won a prestigious award, and Sasaki sends his friend with benefit, Nao (Katsuki Mori), to seduce Segawa so they can publically humiliate him. And in “Once Again,” Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) is shocked to come across her first love when she passes Aya (Aoba Kawai) on the escalators to the train station.
Of the three, “Door Wide Open” is the most intriguing. It also covers the longest period of time—five years and five months—while “Once Again” and “Magic” take place over a couple of days. “Door Wide Open” revolves around one central scene of prolonged erotic tension as Nao recites a passage from Segawa’s book. Not that the passage itself is erotic—it’s an over-the-top sex scene that combines passivity and submission in a way that feels like Hamaguchi is poking fun of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami—it’s the many possibilities a scene like this can take that provide the engine. Hamaguchi leaves the door open for all of them. Ditto for the mistake at the heart of “Once Again,” with a character deciding to roll with it just to see where it goes.
I spent the first two-thirds of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy wondering where all of this would go—if it would amount to something more than the sum of its parts. It was when I stopped wondering and set aside my expectations that the movie exceeded them.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)
Written and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
Produced by Satoshi Takada
Starring: Ayumu Nakajima, Hyunri, Kotone Furukawa, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, Katsuki Mori, Shouma Kai, Fusako Urabe, Aoba Kawai
Film Movement, Not rated, Running time 121 minutes, Opens in select theaters on Oct. 15, 2021.