Japanese filmmaker Ryûsuke Hamaguchi had already made four fiction features, a mid-length, and a series of documentaries on the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami when his five-hour existential relationship drama Happy Hour deservedly earned the 2015 Locarno Film Film Festival’s Best Actress prize—shared among its remarkable four leads—and immediately garnered the attention of international cinephiles. An unusually gifted scenarist, Hamaguchi’s dramas range from short to quietly epic, structured around deeply involving dialogue sequences that naturalistically meander while stirring up undercurrents of complex psychologies that slowly emerge and reveal themselves in unexpected ways. His 2018 film Asako I & II took a more surreal turn with a more mannered style, off-kilter performances, and a bizarre plot wherein a young woman falls for a man identical to a long-lost lover.
His latest film isn’t sprawling like Happy Hour but lands closer to its studious approach to human behaviour while also veering towards the strange realm of coincidence of Asako. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is composed of three short stories. In the first, Magic (or Something Less Assuring), a young woman named Meiko realizes that the lover her best friend is raving about is in fact her own ex-boyfriend—who she still has feelings for. In the second, Door Wide Open, a plot to trap a professor in a professionally compromising situation when a student pays a visit to his office does not go as planned. In the third, Once Again, framed by a fantastical context wherein a computer virus has disabled the internet worldwide, two middle-aged friends who haven’t seen one another since their high school days have a run-in and decide to catch-up—only to discover that things are not what they seem.
Slight in their runtimes but disproportionately rich, each of the three tales unfold with delicacy and surprise, characterized by Hamaguchi’s unique pacing and mood, equal parts touching and mysterious.
I spoke to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi ahead of the World Premiere of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy in the Main Competition at the 71st Berlinale.
Adam Cook: What inspired you to make these three short stories and to connect them together in one feature?
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: In general, short stories are very important to me. For the structure of this film, I was inspired by Eric Rohmer’s Rendez-vous in Paris, which is also made of three loosely related stories. I even had met the editor, Mary Stephen. That’s what made me want to take these short stories and make them into one film.
What unites the stories is the theme of coincidence, and the unlikeliness of coincidence, the serendipity of life. But each story has a different degree of possibility or impossibility, and also a different degree of familiarity for the audience. The first story is meant to be an introduction, it’s more conventional and familiar, the tale of a love triangle. The second is stranger and has more of a distance from the audience, it’s kind of cold and more challenging, it lets you see and feel a darker side of this world. The third is somewhere in the middle, it evokes more familiar feelings. However, each story has a coincidence that is increasingly unlikely, the first one is unlikely, the second is very unlikely, and the third one is almost impossible. So the flow of the film prepares the audience slowly, gradually taking you through these different degrees of coincidence.
Cook: In addition to the theme of coincidence, there’s also a theme of choice. The characters make surprising decisions in each film. For example, how Meiko resolves the love triangle in the first story, or how the scene between the professor and the woman unfolds in the second, and in the third one especially, where the characters consent to a very odd sort of role-play.
Hamaguchi: This theme of choice is related to the theme of coincidence. When you think about coincidence there are two walls, or two poles, one is a situation where something happens and then there is another where this something doesn’t happen at all. There is always this possibility of something happening or not happening. These characters each have to choose between one or the other. The choice in the first film is quite clear, what do with her ex-lover, and she makes this choice intentionally. In the second episode, the woman doesn’t make a conscious choice, it happens unconsciously, but it’s still a choice. And in the third, she chooses both: reality and imagination. It’s not something I had realized when I wrote the film, only when I was making it!
Cook: One thing that is obviously subject to chance is romance and I find the way you portray relationships—both in this film and in your work in general—to be very interesting. There’s something very unstable and unpredictable about them.
Hamaguchi: I like romance as a subject for that reason: because it’s so unstable. Every human relationship is very unstable. When someone is in a relationship with somebody or they’re in love with somebody, a person often realizes that they may not be who they thought they were, that they’re in fact a different person than they had envisioned. Through romantic relationships we can discover a different self, it’s an opportunity to find a different side of oneself than you previously knew.
Cook: Your films are very conversational with extended dialogue sequences that I think are quite subtle and complex. I’m curious about how you like to approach these scenes and what you like to explore through them?
Hamaguchi: Writing a conversation in the script is how I am able to understand a character. Before I start writing, I decide on a structure, a vague scenario. I have a sense, more or less, of what will happen or what is happening in a scene and in the story. I often imagine something a bit beyond reality at first, it’s not very realistic. When I write a conversation, I try to imagine what would happen in real life, what this character would actually do in such a situation. I’m trying to grasp the basic principle of a character and their actions. But in my head I always have two concepts which are fighting: the real and the unreal. I write while I imagine this fight between these opposite poles.
Cook: Something that’s special about your films is that they’re not just about what is being said, they’re as much about listening as speaking. Especially in scenes of recitation, like in Happy Hour at the writer’s event, and in the second episode of the new film, the woman recites an erotic passage from a novel. I love how we get to watch the other characters listen and react.
Hamaguchi: I like to film the expressions of actors when they’re listening. I do long rehearsals with the actors and during them I ask them to read the dialogue out loud many times, but at first without any emotions. The actors learn the lines like this together and they’re all listening to each other’s unemotional voices. Then I tell them they can begin to actually open up only when we start filming the scenes on set. So for the first time that the actors both speak and listen to the dialogue with emotion is with the camera rolling. This enables the emotions to create a new situation themselves. And in that situation I film the facial expressions of the actors in character as they are listening. This reaction of actors, this is the moment when they understand their character and their personalities. It is these moments that I use in the final edit.
Cook: You have a very understated style but I think it’s quite particular. For example, you only use close-ups sparingly, and you also specifically have this direct address close-up you like to use where the actor looks straight at the camera, but only in specific situations.
Hamaguchi: I actually always have this instinct to put the camera right in front of the actors like that because this kind of shot and framing can capture the most of an actor’s expression as is possible in one shot. It’s also the camera position that is the best and easiest for the audience to understand what is happening to this character, how they’re feeling exactly. But it’s actually an awkward position for the actors so it’s not often possible! So, when I use this position, the face-to-face close-up, that’s when the concentration of the actor is at the highest, the moment where I can actually do that. It’s not something I can plan in advance, it has more to do with the actor as we are shooting. It’s an opportunity I can find only sometimes. If I notice that the actor is especially concentrated, that they’re at this other level, their highest level, I will move the camera to this position.
Cook: I’m interested in the theme of mistaken or ambiguous identity and false memory. It’s a big part of Asako I & II but it also important to the third episode here.
Hamaguchi: Our identity is formed by our memory. How I know myself is informed by my memories. But these memories are usually wrong, or at least distorted and inaccurate. We actually find out we are wrong about how we remember things when we watch films. We imagine scenes that you think you have seen before but they’re not there. Our memory is fragile and therefore our identity is far more fragile than we realize. Only sometimes does that actually come up to the surface and we realize.
Cook: That connects to what you said earlier, that each new relationship is an opportunity to find out something new about ourselves…so, memory is our construction of our identity but it’s in our encounters with people where we are perpetually finding out who we are now. Another set of poles.
Hamaguchi: And it’s something that happens by coincidence. Who or what is or is not one’s self becomes more obvious only through coincidence.
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