Japanese director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s international profile has skyrocketed over the past year, as he’s released two feature films that have both been sensations on the festival circuit. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy premiered at Berlinale and won the Silver Bear, while Drive My Car played in competition in Cannes. He also co-wrote the wartime thriller Wife of a Spy, directed by his onetime film professor Kiyoshi Kurosawa, which was awarded the Silver Lion at the 2020 Biennale. Though he had his breakthrough with 2015’s Happy Hour, Hamaguchi is far from a newcomer. But before that five-hour epic, his films struggled to find distribution, and many are still hard to come by outside Japan. At best, they may periodically resurface as part of retrospectives. So both Drive My Car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy coming to theaters almost at the same time offers a rare opportunity for cinephiles.
Hamaguchi’s debut feature was Passion (2008), his thesis project at Tokyo University of the Arts. It’s a tight and carefully written drama that taps into the restrained desires and unspoken truths, within a group of middle-class Tokyoites in their late twenties. It tentatively asks questions about the intricacies of relationships, which Hamaguchi’s subsequent oeuvre will verbalize much more eloquently. Spatial proximity is key in the film, whose visual grammar primarily uses compartmentalized domestic spaces as the backdrop of nodal setpieces. As his career progressed, Hamaguchi’s framing would remain intimate, but his camera would also relax and embrace larger spaces. In films like The Depths (2010), Asako I & II (2018), and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, the cityscape becomes a locus for escapism as much as a funnel for introspection.
Throughout the years, Hamaguchi has developed a peculiar directorial approach, which draws from both stage production and nonfiction filmmaking. Modes of theater have been part of his practice since 2012’s Intimacies, a four-hour film he made in collaboration with students of the ENBU Seminar, a Tokyo drama school. Divided into three parts, the film follows the production and realization of a play, with the middle part depicting its full performance. He then combined this with a documentary sensibility, informed by the trilogy of films he made with Kō Sakai about survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami — a disaster that echoes through the rest of his filmography, from Asako I & II to Drive My Car. The experience was revelatory for Hamaguchi, opening his eyes to the importance of caring and listening as foundational blocks in relationship-building, especially between filmmakers and subjects. From then on he integrated extensive workshops into his creative process, starting with Happy Hour.
Drive My Car tightly weaves a theater milieu into its structure. Based on the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, it follows Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and director who gradually bonds with his standoffish driver (Tōko Miura). Yūsuke’s idiosyncratic approach to theater privileges a multilingual script and extensive reading sessions. The actors in the show he’s working on cannot understand each other, using Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, and Korean Sign Language; they focus instead on both body language and sound, seeking to transcend verbal communication. Appropriately, the movie revels in the spoken word and its endless nuances.
Similarly, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is concerned with performance and role play. The film is a triptych, each story playing with themes of coincidence and imagination (“coincidence and imagination” being the translation of the original title, Gūzen to Sōzo). The dialogue is charged and pressurized, ripe for speculation and what-ifs. “Magic (or Something Less Assuring),” the first story, follows an unexpected love triangle. It’s followed by “Door Wide Open,” about a fumbled attempt at a seduction trap. The third part, “Once Again,” poses yet another question about how performing can let people connect with their true feelings. Two women meet by chance on an escalator, each mistaking the other for someone whom they once cherished but have since lost. If sincerity is hard to grasp unless it comes at the expense of others (as seen in Passion and Asako), then playing pretend becomes a viable option. Hamaguchi’s characters are often haunted by their pasts — a former lover, a national catastrophe, a deceased loved one. But these ghosts aren’t obstacles in his films. Instead they linger until the characters are strong enough to let them go.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is currently playing in select theaters. Drive My Car will be playing at the San Diego Asian Film Festival (10/28-11/6), and opens in select theaters November 24. Happy Hour and Asako I & II can be streamed on various platforms.