REVIEW: Gûzen to sôzô [Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy] [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 121 minutes
    Release Date: December, 2021 (Japan) / October 15th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Film Movement
    Director(s): Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
    Writer(s): Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Maybe it’s the loss of someone I believed was mine.

Everyone lives through a series of choices. Some are buoyed by the happiness of having always chosen correctly (or at least the privilege of never having to wonder if the other choice would have provided greater happiness) and some weighed down by regret. There are other times too, however, that people may find themselves existing in a moment where happiness becomes inextricably linked to regret. Perhaps it’s only through pushing yourself to the brink of self-destruction that you finally realize the truth you’ve held hidden inside your heart. And maybe the experience of finding it is enough to offset the inevitable turmoil coming as its price. Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), Nao (Katsuki Mori), and Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) are there right now, unsure whether the consequences are worth the pain.

The person placing them there is writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi courtesy of his cinematic triptych Gûzen to sôzô [Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy]. Told in three chapters, it sends these three women down paths that arrive from nowhere, are the result of coercion, and prove two decades in the making respectively. Each is as funny as it is heartrending with love firmly centered as the adjectives lost, self-, and unspoken settle in front. Meiko didn’t know how she felt about her ex-boyfriend until the reality that he was no longer hers presents itself. Nao felt trapped in a life of expectations that drove her to consider her rebellion foolish rather than empowering. And Natsuko has been crippled by her own silence, its weight suddenly too much to continue bearing.

They are the trio who have been given a choice, but they aren’t alone. Coincidence brings Meiko’s best friend Tsugumi (Hyunri) into her equation once it’s discovered that she’s just experienced an unexpectedly magical day with the man (Ayumu Nakajima‘s Kazuaki) Meiko left two years prior. Anger and opportunity place the married Nao’s former French professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa‘s Segawa) into her “honeytrap” after her disgruntled friend-with-benefits (Shouma Kai‘s Sasaki) requests she help ruin him as revenge for a failing grade. And a misunderstanding driven by strong emotions unwittingly asks Aya (Aoba Kawai) to be Natsuko’s sounding board and receive every pent-up thought she’s kept locked away. These bystanders are ultimately innocent, but also prone to suffering depending on their counterparts’ decisions—simultaneously an irreplaceable confidant and potential victim.

No one chapter has any connection to the others outside of the title’s promise of “fortune and fantasy” (or as the original Japanese more accurately translates: “coincidence and imagination”). They could theoretically be watched in any order, but I think Hamaguchi has chosen the best orientation if only because the last (complete with a sci-fi conceit born from COVID wherein a potent computer virus made it so the internet was no longer usable) has an added bonus of initially feeling like it might be about older versions of Meiko and Tsugumi (the haircuts and lack of names for so long had my mind making assumptions). There’s also a resonant progression of consequences that feels right. Sacrifice to karma to compassion, the gauge gradually shifting from bittersweet to hopeful.

The first, “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”, is perhaps the strongest of the three thanks to the uncertainty of its secret and the number of choices placed upon Meiko’s shoulders. Not only must she decide whether to tell Kazuaki that she loves him, but she must also decide whether to tell Tsugumi that she was his ex. She presents him an ultimatum wherein choosing her risks losing both women altogether, but her choosing him risks leaving her in a similar scenario. Because what if his love has run out and he’d rather roll the dice with Tsugumi? Would she forgive Meiko for trying to steal him back? Is winning him after the relationship already failed once worth losing her as a friend? No victory can ever be complete.

The second, “Door Wide Open”, is the most entertaining in large part because Mori and Shibukawa’s performances are perfectly and similarly awkward. The name has to do with his Segawa always making certain that his office door stays open. Where other teachers and students may feel uncomfortable having the results of his uncompromising grading system aired in the open (Sasaki begging for a passing grade causes quite a stir), he knows their discomfort is better than their imaginations. So when Nao enters to seduce him for her scheme, everything gets thrown off by his constant refusal to let that door close. The awkwardness is thus less about what she’s doing than it is about how her inability to do it overtly transforms the exchange into something wholly different.

And the third, “Once Again”, is what you’ll be remembering on the way home. Rather than be punctuated by heartache or a joke, this chapter proves the sweetest case of mistaken identity ever while also becoming a profound example of kismet. More than coincidence, it’s as though Natsuko and Aya were destined to meet at this precise moment in time thanks to the necessities and hardships that come with a completely analog world. The acting throughout is top-notch, but there’s a reason Urabe and Kawai seem to grace every poster variation I’ve seen. The vulnerability and trust they share while implausibly coexisting as friends and strangers can’t be ignored as they open their characters’ hearts to heal and be healed in a way that feels so rare today.

Some moments carry the emotional weight that’s scarred us all, some surprise with a knowing wink of humorous intent, and others prove undeniably charming in their earnestness. I haven’t been this enamored by an anthology film since Wild Tales and that black comedy earned an Oscar nomination. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy has the added benefit of prestige replacing that one’s genre trappings to maybe find itself enjoying a similar fate (although Hamaguchi could become his own stiffest competition with Drive My Car also planning a release by year’s end). The movie is relatable, entertaining, melancholy, and impeccably produced with every facet in front of and behind the camera firing on all cylinders. And it’s also authentic in its pain. Whether succumbing to or conquering, its impact remains.

courtesy of Film Movement

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