The anthology film has fallen out of fashion in the past couple of decades. We no longer live in an era in which movie stars have the ability to draw in massive audiences, so celebrity laden super-productions like The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965) are unlikely to receive funding in the modern economy. Audiences are more invested in well-known characters, spectacle and long-running franchises than they are in thematically linked short films about romance and passion. When you look back on the anthology films of the 1960s, it is difficult to feel nostalgic for them. They were traditionally long, overblown, poorly written and full of stars who were just there to pick up their paycheck. They were typically made by people who were so famous and popular that they could be confident of the fact that people would show up to watch them on screen, even if they gave a poor performance. Hubristic self satisfaction and laziness tended to waft off of these projects and make them all but unwatchable today.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a powerful reminder of the fact that the format can be put to good use when creative, highly motivated individuals are working behind the camera. This is a skilfully crafted feature that appears to effortlessly link its different episodes together. The format is used to provoke discussion about the holding patterns that heartbroken individuals can often be trapped in and it doesn’t face too many hiccups when it comes to transitioning between the different episodes. They are thematically connected by Hamaguchi’s reflections on the malaise experienced by the majority of the characters and their peculiar desire to play mind games with their lovers.
In the first story, Magic (Or Something Less Reassuring), we witness a love triangle between two female friends and a man that used to date one of them. One of the friends, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) is a model who enjoys toying with people’s emotions. She is mildly amused when her friend Gumi (Hyunri Lee) begins chatting about a man that she has recently become besotted with, but she is disturbed when she picks up on the fact that this man is Kaz (Ayumu Nakajima). She decides to visit him and they reminisce about their past relationship, whilst realising that they still know how to push each other’s buttons.
In the second story, Door Wide Open, socially awkward university student Nao (Katsuki Mori) is an inveterate philanderer who enjoys the thrill of seducing younger men. She is married with children but longs for a more exciting life. When one of her lovers pushes her to seduce Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shubukawa) and then publicly humiliate the man, she decides to go along with his scheme. Her unconventional seduction tactics end up producing surprising results and she and Segawa begin to bond.
In the third and final story, Once Again, two women who believe that they used to be school friends come into contact at a train station. Moka (Fusako Urabe) believes that Nana (Aoba Kawai) was her high school girlfriend and is horrified when she discovers that she is talking to a complete stranger. She had gone to Nana’s house, under the auspices of having a friendly chat, but finds herself receiving counselling from the empathetic Nana. They only spend an afternoon together, but they fundamentally change one other’s outlook on their adolescent years.
Hamaguchi’s screenplay achieves the correct tonal balance in its handling of all three stories. They all feature a dash of zany eccentricity but they are never weighed down by whimsy or cloying sweetness. Meiko and Nao seem to walk around with a pervasive sense of dread hanging over their heads and find themselves surprised by the fact that life can simply go on after a humiliating or catastrophic event. In all cases, we are left with a bitter, melancholic aftertaste and a lot of ambiguities to consider. None of these stories wrap up neatly and Hamaguchi gives audience members the opportunity to bring their own perspective on love into their consideration of the film’s themes. It elicits a strong emotional response without having to force your hand. In encouraging audience engagement, it lets your imagination do most of the work and follows the show, don’t tell principle.
It is also easy to marvel over the warm, relaxed performances that the ensemble cast deliver. Even when asked to read an erotic novel about a woman sucking on a man’s genitals, Mori finds ways to ground the scene in reality. Her character seems to delight in performing such a bold and provocative gesture, and yet Mori reminds us that this is a woman who views flirtation as a form of warfare. As she reads to Segawa, and notices that he is responding to her actions, she can be seen finding ways to subtly entrap him. Mori suggests that Nao is a seasoned professional in the art of seduction, whilst also leaning into the inherently comical nature of the exchange. This is just one of many examples of the actors rising to the challenge set by Hamaguchi’s unusually verbose dialogue. The experience of seeing intelligent, highly capable actors delivering talky, philosophical monologues was a breath of fresh air in the age of ironic, self-reflexive writing that obstinately refuses to seriously contemplate any issue.
The film already made a big splash at the Berlin International Film Festival and one can only hope that it will receive a warm reception from international audiences. It isn’t sensational enough to become a cause célèbre but if fantastic writing, sensitive performances and tonal consistency aren’t enough to sell a film these days, we’re living in very dark times indeed.