Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has two films coming out in 2021, and people seem to really like Drive My Car, which I haven’t seen yet. I look forward to that one and I hope it’s swell, but I’m slightly annoyed that its profile might eclipse the other film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, which could be considered “old” to cinematic tastemakers (it played at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, where I saw it when I was president of the critics’ jury—remotely, I mean). It also has a clumsy title. Seriously, nobody could think of a snappier English-language handle than something that sounds like an 80s porno starring a Vanna White look-a-like?
It would also be annoying if Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy got overlooked because this is a glorious movie, one of the year’s best. (Our Berlin jury rightly gave its award to Aleksander Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, but it was close.) Wheel is made up of three stories, and I mean no slight to the first two if I say that the third segment dominates my memories of this film. I won’t do much synopsizing here, except to say that the stories are full of droll observations and weird, tilted humor, yet the blade being wielded is exceptionally sharp. Hamaguchi gets at universal truths, but he’s also very much of the moment; these stories come out of the here and now, not some kind of vague daydream.
That said, the wonderful third story does have a daydreamy quality to it, like something out of Eric Rohmer’s notebook jottings. Two women, soulfully played by Fusako Urabe and Aoba Kawai, meet during a school-reunion weekend (one has come back to town for the reunion, and yet they meet by chance at a train station). After 20 years, there’s a lot to catch up on. Or is there? “Objectively speaking, I must be very happy,” one of them says. Hmm.
I won’t describe the revelations that casually emerge during their afternoon-long conversation, but Hamaguchi doles them out in a beautifully measured way that culminates in a gorgeous conclusion. That beauty comes about not just because lessons have been learned (although there is something liberating in what the film suggests about how we deal with memories and fictions), but about the way the director sees this situation. Although the movie is made up of a series of long conversations, the way we look at things makes all the difference, as this story implies on multiple levels.
At the end, the two women are back at the train station, the camera watching them from a neutral but somehow loaded vantage point, their world charged in a way the hubbub around them cannot imagine. A shot of the station exterior looks the same as it did when the story began, and yet it is not the same—the world has turned like a wheel, and the way we see things has shifted with it.
November 12, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.