Sunday, May 22, 2022

One Good Thing: The Movie To See If You Loved the Oscar-nominated Drive My Car

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drive my carWritten and directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the stealth awards powerhouse of the year is an unusual berth for a long, low-key Japanese drama, but certainly a creditable one. But if you were standing in line or sitting at a bar at a fall film festival in 2021, you might have had an unusual conversation: Which Hamaguchi movie did you prefer?

not which one from Hamaguchi’s movies — the director made many celebratedoften very long (2015’s Happy Hour runs more than five hours) — but which one of his movies was doing the rounds at the time, because there were two. drive my car premiered in July in Cannes and began its long road to the Oscars. But months earlier, during the much wintery (and mostly remote) Berlin Film Festival, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy had taken home the Silver Bear, the festival’s second prize, and has since made its way around the world.

They’re both great, but on balance I like to watch Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy a hair more. It clocks in at two o’clock drive my caris 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 vivid possibilities in the short film’s mostly ignored form.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is basically three short films played one after the other. They are 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 surprising role of pure happiness in our lives. Spin the wheel. Watch what happens.

Kotone Furukawa and Ayumu Nakajima in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
movie movement

The first film, ‘Magic (or Something Less Assuring)’, centers on Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), a model who shares a taxi with her boyfriend Tsugumi (Hyunri). Tsugumi recently met a new man and she excitedly tells Meiko all about their unexpected first date. Meiko listens calmly and with interest, but after dropping Tsugumi off, she heads straight for a surprise confrontation at a downtown office. An open-ended story, we wonder what is really happening here and what Meiko plans for her future.

“Through Wide Open” – the second film and the longest – opens with a college class interrupted by the voice of a desperate student begging a professor to keep his grade. That professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), refuses. Some time 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 lure and exact revenge on Segawa by proxy, but things don’t go as planned.

A professor and a student are in his office.  He looks defeated;  she is reading a book out loud and looking at him.

Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Katsuki Mori in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
movie movement

The final segment, “Once Again,” ostensibly takes place in a very near future (or perhaps an 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 fades into the background of the story, where 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 accidentally sees her on an escalator. The woman (Aoba Kawai) invites Natsuko to her house for tea, but not all is as it seems.

In all three stories, Hamaguchi spins 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 those around them. Meiko keeps a secret from Tsugumi, but she also longs for a love she once had and rejected. Nao has tried every life path available to her and has found ways to live without obligations, but meeting a man who knows who he is undoes her. And Natsuko, seeking the only happiness she’s ever known in the midst of a miserable life, is forced by fate to feel emotions that she doesn’t know how to process.

Two women, both on an escalator, look at each other.

Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
movie movement

Hamaguchi’s films often feature characters locked in long, surprising conversations, where motivations and feelings are buried beneath calm surfaces. But as we listen to them, we’re left guessing, wondering what’s really going on in their hearts. Then their stories take unexpected turns to the left, and the result, for those of us paying attention, is the catharsis that comes with a good story.

I said I like it Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy a bit more than drive my car† However, on repeated viewing, I’ve come to believe that they’re both brilliant in their own way, showing Hamaguchi’s unusually deft touch with both long and shorter stories. For those who haven’t watched yet drive my carWheel of Fortune and Fantasy acts as an accessible introduction to a master’s work. But even if you’ve seen the longer film – or if you just want to dive into three captivating 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 for rent or for sale on digital platforms. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good case archives.

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