Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

I write slowly these days, so just one more evening to catch this one at the Somerville. It's also on disc, but it's a fun one to see with others, if only because there is one scene in the middle where the awkward laughter is fantastic.

Unlike last week's Drive My Car, this one was upstairs in the main auditorium, and this was the first time I had a bit of a chance to notice some of the changes. I got there early enough to see a whole bunch of people with musical instruments walking up the stairs that lead to the balcony, leaving me wondering if this was the sort of movie where you might have live accompaniment. That wasn't the case, so I guess maybe the stage door for the Crystal Ballroom is up there.

Speaking of things changing upstairs…

I think that's the new 4K laser projector, as opposed to the closer-to-consumer-level machine theaters occasionally use to project slideshows or DVD/Blu-ray content - which this very well could have been,. I presume it's a DCP; but there were some aspect ratio things with the previews that suggested different sources. Anyway, you can see that there's still stuff in the normal booth, because they run a lot of film, but I guess if you're not running film, it doesn't need to be behind a window. I'd heard the digital projectors run hotter than film, but maybe that's not the case with the laser units. Still kind of odd placement, compared to every other theater I've ever been in, but, hey, maybe it wasn't built for an auditorium this size.

Interesting movie at least. I didn't expect January to be so Japan-heavy when the month started; it'll be interesting to see what February brings (including The Conversation in that room with that fancy new projector).

Gûzen to sôzô (Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2022 in Somerville Theatre #1 (special presentation, DCP)

Depending upon how the two-hour running time of Ryusuke Hamaguchi's anthology feature Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is allocated, it could conceivably cut into three likely nominees for "Best Short Film" for the bodies with awards that category, which would be a neat trick considering the amount of praise Hamaguchi's Drive My Car is getting in the feature category. It won't get split up, sure, but what he does with the short form is as impressive as that sprawling film - and more lively, despite still being mostly two people talking.

The first segment, "Magic (or Something Less Assuring)", opens with an outdoor photoshoot, after which model Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) shares a cab with Tsugumi (Hyunri), a good friend who appears to work for the commissioning magazine. Gumi spends the trip talking about the guy she met at an event the week before and how they instantly connected, and while Meiko is excited for her, she's also able to pick up enough context to recognize the man her friend met, and decides to go confront Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima) right away.

All three vignettes are built around one-on-one conversations, but Hamaguchi shoots the two that form the bulk of "Magic" differently: The cab is only just large enough that he can keep Meiko out of frame when he wants to focus on Gumi, lit with nighttime reds that make it feel cozy, compared to the stark fluorescent light of Kazuaki's office, letting Kotone Furukawa and Ayumu Nakajima circle each other as they spar, with less fuzzy reads of their faces. Furukawa is captivating to watch as she doesn't exactly shed the cuteness and charm which likely serves Meiko well as a model but certainly makes the character canny in her use of it, although she and Hamaguchi never lose track of her having as many messy, conflicting emotions as her ex. Similarly, Nakajima always takes a step back when Kazuaki could get easy sympathy for Meiko's actions, like he's a little too happy to be in the right. It's an intriguingly messy situation with really nothing Tsugumi can do about it.

The next story, "Door Wide Open", starts with a college class witnessing a student (Shouma Kai) begging Professor Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) for a passing grade that will allow him to graduate, with Segawa insisting on leaving the door open lest he be accused of abuse. Five months later, this student and his lover Nao (Katsuki Mori), see a news report of Segawa being awarded a prestigious literary award, and he concocts a plan to use Nao as a sort of honeypot. She's not exactly enthusiastic, but as a thirty-ish undergraduate who feels like an outcast on campus, she eventually relents.

This may be the weakest of the parts, in some ways; Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Katsuki Mori are both game in how they portray two people who are maybe not quite as boring and asexual as their younger compatriots might expect, and one can somewhat sense that both actors have an idea of what makes Nao and Segawa tick and what got them to this point, but it's not really on the screen. Hamaguchi never quite finds the words that will flesh either character out enough to build a connection between them, even though you can see everyone putin in the work. The scene is memorable in large part because it is, in fact, very funny - it is built around deadpan crudity and just gets funnier every time it keeps going every time the viewer thinks it's going to stop - and yet, somehow, that establishing that these two characters are actually on the same sort of odd wavelength doesn't lead to nearly as much as it could. It's one of those shorts that seems a bit more like the start of a story rather than the whole thing.

That could maybe be said for the third and final entry, "Once Again", in which Natsuko Moka (Fusako Urabe) returns to the town where she grew up for a high school reunion, hoping to see her first love Yuki. Yuki's not there, but Natsuko is surprised and pleased to run into her (Aoba Kawai) by chance at the train station. She needs to get back home for a package delivery for her son - married names are part of why Natsuko couldn't track her down - but invites Natsuko for tea. But just as Natsuko's about to say the things she's kept bottled up for twenty years, her friend tells her something that changes everything.

"Once Again" should strain suspension of disbelief fairly severely - it's got a very odd twist and Hamaguchi has to posit a world-changing piece of malware to explain why these two don't just look a piece of information up (over a decade into the smartphone era and 25 years into the internet being ubiquitous, writers are still trying ways to not use them) - but it somehow doesn't. Part of it's mechanical - Hamaguchi works the malware into Natsuko's backstory - and part of it comes from how self-aware these two women are. They both recognize that they're in a weird situation but are also willing to recognize their own loneliness and how it can be hard to overcome at that age. There's a little more urgency to Fusako Urabe's Ms. Moka than Aoba Kawai's Mrs. Kobayashi, but it lets the latter draw the former out. They don't form the connections one might expect from their first encounter, but they process it. As much as the "Xeron Virus" laid all hidden connections bare and made people wary of forming new ones online, they still found a way to create it for themselves and cherish the knowledge.

It's not surprising that all three are about forging connections or finding unexpected intimacy in some way; every anthology has something like that running down the center. What is a bit surprising is the extent to which Hamaguchi follows the same conversation-based template throughout; most of the time, these projects are about stretching different muscles. On the other hand, this is what Hamaguchi does, and he's on an impressive roll right now.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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