Berlinale 2021 Review: Love Lies Below Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Enchanting “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy”

“We caressed each other through our conversation,” Gumi (Hyunri) tells Meiko (Kotone Furukawa) in the first chapter of “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” a triptych of tales from “Asako I and II” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi in which one can actually feel the sentiment when love is elusive yet it’s easy to get swept up in words. As Gumi notes, “Feeling ease isn’t the same as romance,” but it doesn’t prevent her from waxing on about a transcendent first date with Kazu (Ayumu Nakajima), the head of interior design firm she met by chance encounter, nudged on by questions from her friend.

Deception becomes a trend in the three stories Hamaguchi presents without any overt connection, yet involve characters who not only will occasionally hide their true intentions, but can be seen just as often trying to recover from the ways in which they’ve deluded themselves. While giving himself far less time to pull you in than his five-hour breakthrough “Happy Hour,” in which it felt like one was leaning in to listen to the private conversations between friends, the writer/director’s latest is every bit as magnetic as you enter three scenarios fraught with frustration. The first, “Magic (Or Something Less Assuring),” is a bit mischievous in turning a meet-cute on its ear when the happenstance that led to Gumi making such a strong instant connection with Kazu is revealed to be a two-way street when coincidence is responsible for Meiko knowing more about what happened than she lets on. Without spoiling its second half, the entry is filled with clever turnabouts, the most fascinating being how Meiko’s deceit leads her to have more honest conversations with the people in her life than she was likely ever capable of before.

You’re more aware at first of what’s driving Nao (Katsuki Mori) in chapter two “Door Wide Open,” in which the woman who has felt passed by in her pursuits both professional and romantic is urged on to to blackmail a professor (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) she admires by an aggrieved former student (Shouma Kai) she doesn’t even really like, though she can’t bring herself to extract herself from a friends with benefits situation with diminishing returns. She’s put up to getting the professor to sign his latest book, the winner of a prestigious award, and sets about reading a particularly randy passage from it with the aim of getting some kind of rise out of him, yet the two find they have more in common than they can express, with her inability to say no to carrying out this scheme the same reason why it seems doomed to fail when the professor prevents himself from fully engaging as both fear what acting on their impulses will look like.

A third chapter “Once Again” actually starts with an impulsive act when a woman (Fusako Urabe), disappointed from attending her 20-year high school reunion without seeing a former friend, believes she’s lucked into a second chance when she comes across someone familiar (Aoba Kawai) at the subway station before leaving town, and while she may be mistaken about the relationship they had, the one created in its place that unfolds in the present unearths long repressed emotions. In focusing on characters who need a bit of cover to reveal themselves – the way things are structured, it’s a lovely touch that the central character in each of the stories have the room to emerge on their own time – Hamaguchi throws the best kind of masquerade party in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” where you’re constantly intrigued by what lies beneath.

“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” will screen at the Berlinale Film Festival.