Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) review

Introduction

In a short span of time, Ryusuke Hamaguchi has cemented his position of being one of the most celebrated directors of Japan. Ever since, he impressed international audiences with his Happy Hour (2025), he has meticulously crafted award-winning narratives, like Asako 1 & 2 (2018), Wife Of a Spy (2020) [screenwriter], and Drive My Car (2021), that excel in relational naturalism. Hamaguchi’s Wheel Of Fortune And Fantasy, an anthology about love and desire, for that matter, won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Review

Magic (or Something Less Assuring). One night, after a photo-shoot, Tsugumi (Hyunri) tells her friend Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) about the magical night she had with a man called Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima). Little does Tsugumi know that Kazuaki is Meiko’s ex-boyfriend.

The initial conversation between Meiko and Tsugumi touches upon the very insecurity that the intertwining of the imaginary and the symbolic can cause in the moment of falling-in-love. Tsugumi does not only highlight the seducing nature of finding similarities (imaginary), but also how, via the eroticism of the signifier, something of a subjective effect (symbolic) is able to take place – I touched something deep within him and I felt he touched me deep within, too. Yet, her signifiers also underline that, despite being subjectively affected, a doubt remains. This doubt has everything to do with how Tsugumi perceives him as image (imaginary). Is he merely a handsome player, manipulating her with signifiers into his bed, or is he, despite his looks, genuine interested in her as subject?   

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

The signifier magic, in our view, means nothing other than the moment when the subject, due to being subjective affected by the encounter (symbolic), supposes the effect to have happened in the other subject and starts believing in the fantasy of being able to write the sexual relationship together (imaginary).

Yet, Hamaguchi’s first short story also beautifully echoes the impossibility to write the sexual relationship – it remains forever a fantasy – and delves into those acts that radically problematize the ability of a subject to craft with the other a sexual relationship. In more concrete terms, Hamaguchi explores the possible motives for cheating, like sexual frustration or, in other words the frustration of the subjective need for a physical signal of the other’s love (Narra-note 1). Yet, some infatuations can survive such a radical confrontation with the subject’s romantic impotence (Narra-note 2).    

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Door Wide Open. One day, Sasaki (Shoma Kai) asks Nao (Katsuki Mori), his older casual sexual partner, to try to honeytrap professor and award-winning novelist Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) take revenge for him, as the professor’s refusal to let him pass the mandatory French course ruined his career. While she is reluctant at first, she ultimately complies with his wish.

Hamaguchi’s second narrative underlines that, beyond all romantic pretenses, sex can attain the value of a currency, an exchange value. Yet, sex cannot become a form of currency if it has not, at first, attained a subjective value. It is, thus, only because sex with Sasaki is subjectively important that he’s able to seduce her into trying to honeytrap professor Segawa (Narra-note 3). In relation to this seduction, Hamaguchi also explores, with a tinge of sad bitterness, how a man can be a ravage for a woman and how such ravage not necessarily means that the (romantic?) interest of a woman into that ‘destructive’ man is destroyed.    

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Hamaguchi also highlights how the eroticism of signifiers can be exploited to dupe the male subject into chasing his phallic logic, to attain a fleeting moment of phallic pleasure. In this sense, Hamaguchi implies the door that, in many cases, remains open is not a physical door, but a phallic one. Male subjects leave such door open, not because they forget to close it, but to allow the female other to stroke – read exploit – their ego and their need to feel desired because a phallic sparkle they think they hold.

But is Segawa’s phallic door open or is it merely his physical door that always remains open? Is his deafness for the uneasiness that resounds in Nao’s voice a sign that he is willingness to let himself be duped by her seductive signifiers or merely a sign of his inability to discern the intentions that are half-hidden/half-said in her words?

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Once Again. Since the rise of the Xeron virus, which caused computers all over the world to leak all their data, the world has returned to using telegrams and letters. One night, Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) attends the Miyagi Girl’s high school 1998 class reunion. She feels somewhat out of place and leaves soon. The next day, at Sendai station, she encounters, by chance, a classmate (Aoba Kawai) who invites her to her home. After some chit-chat, Natsuko tells her that she is avoiding what’s important and asks if she’s truly happy with her current life. Yet, before Natsuko delves into her past, the other woman confesses that she has forgotten her name.

Hamaguchi’s last narrative deals with imaginary misrecognition, the impact of desire on the act of seeing, the importance of past subjective encounters for one’s current comportment, and the importance to vocalize the unsaid as to be able to move or to quiet a lingering subjective unrest. Moreover, with this narrative, Hamaguchi poetically reveals that the source of inter-subjective love is the very connection of two unable-to-fill-up subjective holes, the acceptance of both partners of the irreducible emptiness in the other.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Spectators might be led to wonder why Natsuko, who doesn’t like gatherings, shows up at this reunion, but Hamaguchi soon reveals that what compelled her to go is linked to an unresolved regret of not fighting for her feelings in the past and her burning need to do something to quell this regret. This unresolved regret is both the source of the vain hope to encounter her at the reunion as well as her disappointment with her absence that made her leave early. Yet, the wheel of fortune seemingly makes the woman she was looking for appear right in front of her.

Hamaguchi shows how misrecognition (imaginary) in the field of seeing is determined by out subjective desire. In Natsuko’s case, the act of misrecognition is caused by her burning desire to undo her regret and her desire to vocalize, after all these years, her unwavering romantic feelings for her beloved.   

The composition of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy stands out due to its use of static shots and slow-moving dynamism and its reliance on long takes – Hamaguchi generally refrains from richly applying cuts. This compositional style does not only give the narrative an unhurried atmosphere but also invites the spectator to observe the imagery in detail and absorb the urban or interpersonal atmospherics.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Conversations, for that matter, are generally composed with a blend of shorter takes and longer takes. This kind of concatenation fits the pace of the narratives perfectly and are instrumental in painting more intimate atmospheres and sensibly highlight the playful interaction of emotions, emotions revealed by facial expressions as well as by the rhythm and the intonation of their vocalized signifiers.     

What plays an important role in making Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy such an enjoyable and touching narrative are the natural performances. This naturalism does not allow the natural ebb and flow of conversations to shine and engage the spectator, but also enables the speech-interactions and the emotional undercurrents to attain their pleasing and engaging genuineness.

The piano pieces are generally utilized to fluidly concatenate one episode to the other. Yet, one time, the combination of such music with a static moment focusing on a single character is expertly used to imply certain emotions (e.g. loneliness, emptiness, …) that linger within said character and are waiting to be vocalized or corporally expressed.

With Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Hamaguchi proves, once more, that he is an eloquent master of conversation naturalism and a virtuoso in playing with the signifier to create a rich exploration of the complex nature of love and desire that engages the spectator from start to finish. In short, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an essential viewing for all who holds the art of cinema dear.

Notes

Narra-note 1: Hamaguchi also highlights that some subjects keep on ‘sabotaging’ their romance. While no answer to the source of such self-sabotage is given, it is evident, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that such repetition is not without a certain fantasmatic logic.

Narra-note 2: The main reason why Meiko confronts Kazuaki in his office is to force him to make a choice between her and Tsugumi, to force him to choose to either chase his lingering love for her or to undo his romantic fixation and allow something between him and Tsugumi to blossom. Yet, it’s up to the spectator to decide whether this confrontation is driven by Meiko’s own love for Kazu or the need she has to be loved by him.

Narra-note 3: In this sense, the fact that she complies with Sasaki’s demand can be taken as proof that her statement that she can easily find friends for benefits is merely a lie.

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