movie reviews

‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ review: The perfect anti-soap opera

Ryan Oquiza
‘Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’ review: The perfect anti-soap opera

Courtesy of Japanese Film Festival

Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s underrated 2021 sibling to ‘Drive My Car’ should be the perfect antidote for those who are sick of excessive melodramas

I grew up with over-the-top Filipino soap operas. 

I know all too well how dramatic episodes play out. Is someone revealed to be cheating? Get ready for a verbose shouting match in a lavish resort with some added wine-tossing and hair-ripping. There’s a reunion of old friends who always had romantic feelings for each other? Expect sugary swooning and tearful confessions about how one was never complete without the other after all those years apart.

This is the dramatic language that television networks and, by extension, local films have flogged to death. It’s formulaic, inoffensive, and reliable, the kind of storytelling that production companies can churn out five times every week. There are undoubtedly good flourishes of this approach sprinkled across the canon of Philippine media, but they are few and far between.

In a breath of fresh air, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy shares the same would-be romantic tropes but manage to turn them on their heads. It opts for hushed refrains and leisure encounters to meditate on the fractures of fate and romance — minus the overly dramatic. It is deserving of the same, if not greater, acclaim as Hamaguchi’s Oscar-nominated darling Drive My Car.

Hamaguchi has always been a director with an eye for minimalism. Asako I & II, my favorite film of his, is an outwardly mundane film that’s underpinned by internally repressed feelings of longing and heartache. Happy Hour is a 5-hour behemoth that explores the architecture of alienation through the lens of four women going through a seemingly uneventful yet pivotal trip at a spa town. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy contains the same minimalist pedigree but uses cruel twists of fate to extract existential truths from its imperfect characters.

Three female characters headline each short story in this comedic Japanese triptych. “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)” opens with a 10-minute long conversation between two best friends, Meiko (played by Kotone Furukawa) and Tsugumi (played by Hyunri), about the latter’s romantic rendezvous with a mystery man. It turns out the subject of their chatter is Kazuaki (played by Ayumu Nakajima), Meiko’s ex-lover. She cheated on him in their previous relationship, and both of them haven’t moved on from it. “I got hurt from hurting you,” Meiko explains to Kazuaki, outlining her history of pushing away those she loves as if prodding comforting answers for her own actions. 

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This premise is undoubtedly the most soap-operatic of them all (A love triangle? Check!), but it couldn’t be farther from it in its execution. The dialogue is effortlessly natural and captivating without being unnecessarily melodramatic. Furukawa, in particular, strikes a subtle performance in which knowing glances and weary looks become of significance in rewatches. The conflict illustrates Hamaguchi’s interest in the subject of cheating, notably how it quivers victims and isolates perpetrators, a concept he would also explore in Drive My Car. Consequently, the segment dares us to believe in something less assuring than magic: can Meiko and Kazuaki still work out? In reality, it’s nothing but a fantasy that its romantically inept characters hopelessly indulge in.

“Door Wide Open” is the funniest (and kinkiest) of the bunch. Nao (played by Katsuki Mori), a married mother, is cajoled into honey trapping a reputed professor on behalf of her disgruntled paramour, Sasaki (played by Shoma Kai). She corners professor Segawa (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) in his office and reads with a velvety voice his exceedingly erotic book in the hopes of recording him succumbing to temptation. The only problem is that he’s as firm as a rock and hilariously insists on keeping the door open. As a result, Nao unexpectedly confronts her self-deprecating tendencies and meager personal agency. It builds to a humiliating gaffe that shatters her whole life and is likely to elicit an audible gasp. 

The framing in here is simply masterful. Spaces get tighter and tighter as dialogue grows more risque. Once Nao and Segawa are finally both in on the honey trap ploy, the camera pictures them as equals, and it feels like the tension has finally deflated. Hamaguchi’s wordplay and the immensely entertaining tug of war are the segment’s greatest assets. Conventional dramas rarely utilize sexually vulgar prose since they are either too serious or lighthearted, with no in-betweens. Hamaguchi proves that writing can be sexy, intellectual, and comedic all at the same time, without showing anything explicit (I’m looking at you, VivaMax).

The final segment, “Once Again,” is undoubtedly my favorite. It features Natsuko (played by Fusako Urabe) and Aya (played by Aoba Kawai), old high school friends who embark on an eagerly awaited reunion in the hopes of rekindling the love that was once lost — or, so they thought. It culminates in a clever twist (which would be a shame to spoil), leading to one of the most profoundly cathartic sequences in recent film history. At its core is the idea of strangers, no less queer people, meeting each other by coincidence. Most dramatic LGBT stories are often about regret, sorrow, and loneliness, which is why this segment’s unrelenting commitment to heartfelt solidarity is so impressive.

It’s set in a world where a global computer virus has leaked people’s data and made internet usage defunct. The story doesn’t work if it were placed in the digital age, a time when people felt more detached from themselves than ever before. In this fantasy world absent social media, two distant strangers are able to connect and find solace in the curvatures of fate, suggesting that we may all have the same kinds of regrets. Natsuko and Aya’s encounter shows that it’s possible to get closure from an empathetic stranger or find meaning in even the most embarrassing mistakes in unforeseen ways.

The segment ends in a tender embrace that beautifully encapsulates Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. After three stories about flawed individuals who are dealt unfortunate cards, the film finally delivers us a hopeful release. All that can be heard when Aya runs to Natsuko are the rumblings of cars, the rasping footsteps of sandals, and the regular noises of civilian life, yet this sequence quickens hearts and brings tears to eyes. Because in this unexceptional and nondescript Japanese location, we find out that perhaps fate isn’t cruel after all. – Rappler.com

Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is the chief film critic of SINEGANG.ph and one of the hosts of the film podcast Sine Simplified. He studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman.