Drive My Car, written and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is the stealth awards powerhouse of the year, an unusual berth for a long, quiet Japanese drama but certainly a deserving one. But if you were standing in line or sitting at a bar during a fall film festival in 2021, you might have found yourself in an unusual conversation: Which Hamaguchi film did you prefer?
Not which of Hamaguchi’s films — the director has made many celebrated ones, often very long (2015’s Happy Hour runs over five hours) — but which of his films that was currently making the rounds, because there were two. Drive My Car premiered in July at Cannes, beginning its long road to the Oscars. But months earlier, during the much wintrier (and mostly remote) Berlin Film Festival, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy had nabbed the Silver Bear, the festival’s second-place award, and had been winding its way around the world ever since.
They’re both great, but on balance, I enjoy watching Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy a hair more. It clocks in at two hours to Drive My Car’s three, which doesn’t hurt. But I also love how, structurally and thematically, it encourages the audience to lean in and listen, to connect the dots themselves — and how it shows the vibrant possibilities in the mostly ignored form of the short film.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is, in fact, three short films that play one after another. They’re not linked by characters, settings, or plots. Instead, the link is in the title. All three films explore the strange surprises and chance encounters that can radically change us, the startling role of pure luck in our lives. Spin the wheel. See what happens.
The first film, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” centers on Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a model who shares a cab back from a shoot with her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri). Tsugumi met a new guy recently, and she excitedly tells Meiko all about their unexpected first date. Meiko listens placidly and with interest, but after she drops Tsugumi off, she heads straight for a surprising confrontation at a downtown office. An open-ended tale, we’re left wondering what’s really happening here and what Meiko is planning for her future.
“Door Wide Open” — the second film, and the longest — opens with a university class interrupted by the voice of a desperate student begging a professor to save his grade. That professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), refuses. Sometime later, Segawa wins a prize, and two of his students watch on TV after a liaison. They are Nao (Katsuki Mori), a married mother of a toddler, and her younger boyfriend Sasaki (Shouma Kai), the student Segawa refused. Sasaki convinces Nao to act as a honeypot lure and take his revenge on Segawa by proxy, but things do not work out as planned.
The final segment, “Once Again,” is ostensibly set in a very near future (or perhaps alternate present), after some kind of virus exposed the world’s email and messaging data to everyone. Now, telegrams and snail mail are how people communicate. But that sci-fi setup recedes into the background of the story, in which Natsuko (Fusako Urabe), who was a bit of a loner in high school, travels to her high school reunion hoping to see an old flame. The attempt fails, but the next day she spots her by chance on a set of escalators. The woman (Aoba Kawai) invites Natsuko to her house for tea, but all is not as it seems.
In all three stories, Hamaguchi is spinning a web of uncertainty for his characters and for his audience. The women at the center of each story feel out of place, alienated from their families and desires and the people around them. Meiko keeps a secret from Tsugumi, but she’s also aching for a love she once had and rejected. Nao has tried every life path available to her and found ways to live without commitment, but an encounter with a man who knows who he is undoes her. And Natsuko, hunting for the only happiness she’s ever known in the midst of a miserable life, is pushed by fate into feeling emotions she isn’t sure how to process.
Hamaguchi’s films often feature characters locked into long, surprising conversations, where motivations and feelings lie buried beneath placid surfaces. But listening to them, we’re kept guessing, wondering what’s really going on in their hearts. Then their tales take unexpected left turns, and the result, for those of us paying attention, is the catharsis that comes with a good story.
I’ve said that I like Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy a little more than Drive My Car. On repeat watchings, though, I’ve come to believe that they’re both brilliant in their own way, showing Hamaguchi’s unusually deft touch with lengthy tales as well as shorter ones. For those who haven’t yet watched Drive My Car, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy acts like an accessible introduction to a master’s work. But even if you have seen the longer film — or if you just want to dive into three engrossing stories that leave you wanting more — Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a brilliant, beautiful, deceptive meditation on the forces that move us all.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.