Writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi discusses Berlinale Silver Bear winner Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and how his unconventional rehearsal methods get uncommonly natural performances.
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A young woman discovers that her best friend went on a date with her ex-boyfriend, which makes her wonder if she’s still in love with him. An aimless woman in her thirties half-heartedly attempts to seduce her old college professor, at the request of the younger man she’s sleeping with. A middle-aged woman attends her high school reunion in the hopes of reuniting with an old flame, but finds an unexpected connection, instead. Three short stories, loosely connected by coincidence, make up Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. The film just won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale — the festival’s second-most prestigious award — and deservedly so, as Hamaguchi’s beautifully written, elegantly crafted triptych is a melancholy delight.
Hamaguchi — whom I spoke to over Zoom, via a translator — is a Japanese filmmaker whose star has been steadily on the rise within arthouse film circles for several years now. His five-hour character drama Happy Hour had a low-key premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in 2015, but it gained a small group of adoring fans as it made the festival rounds, and more people braved its intimidating runtime. His followup (and sixth feature overall), Asako I & II, premiered in competition at Cannes in 2018. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is somewhere in between those two films: it’s not as plot driven or high concept as Asako I & II — which was about a young woman who falls in love with a man, and then years later, begins to date his doppelgänger. It’s also more contained than Happy Hour, given its short story format, although like that film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy lives and dies by its long, delicately staged and acted dialogue scenes.
As both the English title and the Japanese title — Guzen to Sozo, or Coincidence and Imagination — suggest, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is about chance encounters that cause each character to reflect on and reevaluate their lives. As Hamaguchi told me, “Although [coincidences] are dispersed in our everyday lives, they have the potential to elevate us or transport us.” In Episode 1: Magic (or something less assuring), Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) listens to her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) recount a magical date from the previous night. Realising that the man Tsugumi went out with is Meiko’s ex-boyfriend, Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), Meiko goes to visit him at his office, and the two engage in a heated argument about their past relationship. Although their romance had been put to bed several years before, their connection through Tsugumi shakes it from its sleep, forcing both Meiko and Kazuaki to contend with whether they’ve actually emotionally moved on.
In Episode 2: Door Wide Open, a coincidental encounter is a reminder of how dire the consequences of one silly decision can be, especially if you’re a woman. When slacker student Sasaki (Shouma Kai) finds out that Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), the college professor who kicked Sasaki out of class five months earlier, got awarded a prestigious literary prize for his latest novel, Sasaki plots revenge. This segment actually focuses on Sasaki’s habitual hookup, Nao (Katsuki Mori), a thirtysomething woman who’s married with kids, but still a student, and bored enough to agree to honeytrap the professor on Sasaki’s behalf. The coincidence actually comes at the end of the story: when Nao bumps into Sasaki five years later, she learns, to her dismay, how he has flourished in the interim, while her life got derailed by the failed honeytrap.
Episode 3: Once Again is the most hopeful, and loveliest, episode of the triptych, in which a chance encounter between two women allows them to deal with the past and move on. In the near future, a computer virus called Xeron has caused all private information to be leaked, meaning the world has gone temporarily offline. Meanwhile, unemployed (for obvious reasons) IT engineer Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) attends her twenty-year high school reunion, hoping to reconnect with her first love, a girl named Mika. Mika isn’t at the reunion, but as Natsuko heads to the train station the next day, she bumps into a woman (Aoba Kawai) whom she mistakenly believes to be Mika. It isn’t the reunion that Natsuko had been hoping for, but Natsuko and the stranger use their encounter to reminisce about past lovers and friends, and act out what they would say to those people were they to meet again.
Hamaguchi’s rehearsal process with his actors is highly unusual, and yet the grounded, compelling scenes that comprise each story are proof of its effectiveness. He explained, “I have all of my actors who appear in a given scene come to the reading. I have them read the script out loud, as if they are reading a telephone book, in a very flat, devoid-of-emotion style. I have them do it again and again and again, until it becomes mechanical. Until the dialogue really seeps into their bones. When we finally arrive at a point where there is no change in the tone of the voice, then we are ready to go on set and start the shoot.”
For Hamaguchi, this approach is a way to create a scene that’s both naturalistic and emotionally charged. “First of all,” he elaborated, “I presume that, if you’ve done it in a flat tone forever and ever, you feel a bit queasy about over-dramatizing it, or overacting. The actors come to a point where that feels kind of embarrassing, so they try to not overdo it.”
“When all of the cast members are together in a room, just reading over and over, their ear becomes accustomed to the tone that a certain piece of dialogue is said with. When you’ve assimilated your ear to that certain tone, it is easy for yourself and others to pick up on the tiny nuances, the ebbs and flows that happen, in terms of emotion or reaction and so forth. And so that makes for a much more nuanced performance — not an overactive performance. They can respond to each other in a very natural way. I think it’s easier for them to react to the motions of the body and the physicality.”
When it comes to shooting the scenes, Hamaguchi prefers to use wide or medium shots so that the physical work the actors are doing is visible. “I wanted to capture the cast members at a certain distance,” he explained. “I didn’t want [the camera] to emphasize them. What I wanted to achieve through this particular distance between the camera and the actors was to consistently capture what was happening inside of the actors, to bring out the tiny ebbs and flows that happen within the actor’s physicality.”
That means that, in the rare instance that Hamaguchi does go in for a closeup, it hits that much harder. For example, the first dialogue scene in Episode 1, in which Tsugumi recounts her date to Meiko in a taxi, is shot mostly in an unbroken medium shot. However, when Meiko realises that Tsugumi is talking about her ex-boyfriend, Hamaguchi cuts to his first closeup, landing on Meiko’s difficult-to-read expression. Even though we don’t know what’s happened yet — it’s not until the next scene that we learn about the boyfriend — we feel something shift within Meiko because of this sudden cut.
Although Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy has thus far only been screened for press and industry, we can already anticipate Hamaguchi’s follow-up film in the near future. “The next one,” he elaborated, “Drive My Car, is based on Haruki Murakami’s [short story],” Murakami is the acclaimed Japanese writer whose novels and short stories have been turned into films and TV since the ‘80s. Most recently, his story Barn Burning was adapted by Lee Chang-dong into Burning (2018). The story Drive My Car is based on follows a man in the wake of his wife’s death from cancer, who grapples with the mystery of the numerous affairs she had while she was alive. “We are about to wrap production,” Hamaguchi told me. “We still have a few more scenes to shoot, but we are nearing completion with that project.” Before signing off from Zoom, he teased, “I had been working on this alongside Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, so you might find some common threads.”
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