“Excuse me, can you go back the same way?” The taxi turns around. This is the first manoeuvre in a film whose English title anticipates its narrative twists. Except this isn’t the same way, this isn’t quite repetition. The film is slippery with such divergencies. Premiering in this year’s Berlinale Competition, Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy continues the director’s interest in doublings, coincidences and duplicity that has earned him comparisons with Rivette and Rohmer since his debut melodrama, Passion, in 2008.
The film’s three episodes focus on female characters, as did Hamaguchi’s (over five-hour) Locarno success Happy Hour (2015) and Asako I & II (given a special mention at Cannes in 2018). Its tripartite structure frames stories of a hurtful love triangle, a botched seduction trap, and an encounter based on mistaken identity. Sections are labelled Magic, Door Wide Open and Once Again, but might equally be called Taxi, Door and Escalator, for the narrative vehicles that transport protagonists on fateful journeys through the neatly functional, Muji-middle-class spaces so characteristic of Hamaguchi’s Japan.
If the door had remained shut, could the professor’s former student have seduced him? If the women had not crossed paths on that pair of escalators? Or if they could cross paths again? Can you pretend to feel something? Can you play at being someone you’re not? The film’s Japanese title, Coincidence and Imagination, encourages such speculation. Characters are contingencies, scenarios are minefields of politeness and distress. Every pause is flammable and held back, pressing in the way Cassavetes holds characters until they snap.
Hamaguchi’s method of improvisatory workshopping (sometimes with non-professional actors, often working in pairs) facilitates these taut, even tortured, exchanges. He often has actors read scripts aloud, with no inflection, until ‘something happens’ (he struggles to explain quite what). Something happens that feels real, has a certain weight or thickness – and that is when he starts filming.
Something like this happens in an extended scene where the student tries to trap her professor. She reads aloud from his recent novel (an explicit section, as awkwardly prosaic as Murakami’s sex writing). Her delivery is flat, her face unmoving. The professor’s scalp twitches – in discomfort? In arousal? Moving around these characters and their nervous dynamic, Hamaguchi’s cameras palpate precisely that weight and thickness he talks about. It is the weight of desire and discomfort. The professor inches towards the student, lowering himself as he nears her. To reach for…? The door. He pushes the door wide open now.
What if things were different? Although this film’s charm is in its resolutely domestic, romantic subject-matter, arriving on our (home) screens this year it inevitably presents an allegory for larger forms of speculation. When Hamaguchi zooms in on someone only to pan out again, restarting the scene and giving her a chance to do things over, it made me think. I watched Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and imagined what the past year might look like, if it too could start over.
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