After Asako I & II, Hamaguchi’s latest can’t help but feel like something of a step backward into less aesthetically daring filmmaking.
“Once Again”, the third and final chapter of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s new omnibus film Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, begins with a crawl of text that describes the destabilizing but not entirely devastating effects of a global computer virus on everyday existence. “The world went off-line and returned to postal mail and telegraphs,” Hamaguchi tells us, “nobody knows if the situation is temporary or permanent.” Ephemeral or enduring, it likely makes little difference: the two women who share a strange encounter in the aftermath are not the first Hamaguchi characters to be confronted with a sudden, supposedly transformative cataclysm only to find that life more or less proceeds apace. Daily chores, mail deliveries, and — much more distressingly — high school reunions appear immune to apocalypse, digital or otherwise. This is a fact with which we are all lately familiar, though it hardly qualifies as a recent revelation for Hamaguchi, who has, from the very beginning, taken up the essential adaptability of the human person as a key subject. Like Nothing Happened — his first short — inaugurated his career and neatly describes his thesis on human behavior. Perhaps too well. Hamaguchi’s last feature, Asako I & II, imposed a kind of artistic crisis on the director himself, disrupting his pre-existing procedures by way of pop-movie imperatives, catching the director as he attempted to balance his film on shifting ground. To watch Asako I & II is to watch Hamaguchi in the process of adapting to it.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, on the other hand, finds him already well-adjusted to the world left behind in the wake of Asako I & II and its Cannes premiere: with an entrée to the major European festivals safely behind him, Hamaguchi can now string together three rather thinly-sketched stories into a feature under the tenuous theme of “chance” and be assured an invitation to this year’s festivities. Which is to say that his newest film, rather than seeking new disruptions to which the aesthetic strategies must adapt, reestablishes the approach of his early shorts (intelligent but sometimes studied mise-en-scène; long sequences built around minute shifts in his actors’ performances; verbose recantations of offscreen action), albeit on a slightly larger canvas — though larger only to accommodate festival convention, which would not offer so prime a slot to something running less than 70 minutes. The world changes, but you manage to find your old routines once again. There is some comfort in that. But after Asako I & II, should we be satisfied with a Hamaguchi who is comfortable, who treads water rather than testing it? We accommodate the vicissitudes of chance by reminding ourselves that, soon enough, it will feel like nothing happened. But that’s probably no way to make movies.
Originally published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.