When Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi made his return to fiction after time away in the realm of documentary, he dispensed with the idea that stories must conform to feature length. “Happy Hour,” the sprawling ensemble drama that sparked interest in him among cinephiles, ran more than five hours, and while his latest, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” boasts a conventional enough running time of 121 minutes, the film is actually composed of three short stories, stitched together and somewhat arbitrarily presented as a single package.
The vignettes are, by the director’s own description, explorations of “coincidence and imagination” — the first three of what he conceived as seven stories, pointing toward what might have been another epic-length project. Audiences tend not to take well to coincidence in drama, which can feel unrealistic when handled clumsily. In Hamaguchi’s hands, however, lucky (or unlucky) twists don’t feel so much like manipulation as a chance for the filmmaker to explore a series of intriguing scenarios: A young woman realizes the guy a friend is falling for is her own ex, a bitter student’s plan to sabotage his college professor backfires in an unexpected way, and two women reunited after 20 years realize they may in fact be strangers.
Each of these episodes is well acted, follows a reasonably conventional three-act structure and emphasizes interesting female characters in a compelling situation — which is more than can be said for many portmanteau films, where one segment is markedly more satisfying than the others. But it also suggests an ongoing resistance on Hamaguchi’s part to engage with the feature form itself. He doodles where another director might strive to weave these elements into a more robust and emotionally impactful shape, to find and develop connections between them, à la Robert Altman.
There’s no rule that says all movies must be a certain way, but in this case, the result feels slight — and slightly lazy — despite the director’s clear gift for expressing simple human truths too seldom captured on film. In the context of a virtual Berlin Film Festival, where “Wheel” won the grand jury prize (runner-up to the Golden Bear), the movie could be divided up and watched in multiple sittings, as homebound audiences may do via streaming when it’s released. But that option feels less like a triumph of radical invention than a sign that Hamaguchi may have missed his calling directing an anthology series for Quibi.
The first episode, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” features more locations than the others, but feels the most static, since it essentially consists of three conversations. The first takes place in the back of a cab, as fashion model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) and her friend/assistant Tsugumi (Hyunri) drive home from a photo shoot, making small talk about the latter’s new boyfriend. As the details emerge, Meiko realizes that the Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) whom Tsugumi is describing is the same guy she dated the year before but never fully got over — so she goes to see him after dropping off Tsugumi. It’s a promising premise, staged to appear almost mundane, and yet, the writing and performances feel lively enough to keep things feeling unpredictable.
Next comes “Door Wide Open,” which refers to a celebrated literature professor’s office policy. At a time when on-campus sexual harassment claims are (finally) being treated seriously, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) knows better than to meet alone with his students — which makes it doubly humiliating when Sasaki (Shouma Kai) prostrates himself for a passing grade, to no avail. Seeking revenge, Sasaki talks sex-friend Nao (Katsuki Mori) into helping him spring a “honey trap”: She’ll go to Segawa’s office and try to seduce him with flattery (by reading an erotic passage from his prize-winning novel), while secretly recording the whole interaction. What Nao doesn’t anticipate is how much more she’s drawn to the author than she is to her immature fuck buddy, which changes her plans. But a careless slip-up keeps things from going the way anyone intended. Five years later, Sasaki and Nao see each other again on a bus, unpacking the consequences of the freak mistake in the segment’s short and open-ended epilogue.
The last chapter, near-future/parallel-present “Any Day Now,” is simultaneously the richest and most incomplete, focusing on two women, Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) and Aya (Aoba Kawai), who pass one another on the escalator outside Sendai Station. It’s been decades since high school, and they excitedly spend the afternoon catching up before realizing that neither is who the other thought — but the mistaken-identity situation isn’t necessarily a setback, giving both the opportunity to get closure on a relationship left unresolved for 20 years. It’s a lovely idea, and one that holds up better on the emotional surface than it does under close scrutiny. As a helpful distraction, Hamaguchi introduces a high-concept hook — a computer virus that has put everyone’s secrets out in the open — but never makes it the focus.
Speaking of focus, DP Yukiko Iioka’s digital cinematography offers crisp, unobtrusive coverage of the stories, while maintaining just enough distance from the characters to leave them somewhat unknowable. Simple as each of these loose sketches may be, like a Haruki Murakami short story or an evocative stand-alone manga, Hamaguchi orchestrates just the right degree of suspense as they unfold. The director clearly seeks to maintain a bit of mystery around these interactions, such that their slenderness leaves room for us to fill in what’s missing — before, after and in the spaces when his protagonists hold back whatever private impulse might alter the situation entirely. Perhaps that’s what Hamaguchi meant by “imagination”: not so much his own as whatever personal ideas audiences bring to the experience.