Monday, February 21, 2022


The justly acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi has specialized in quietly involving works about how people relate to each other, from the sprawling friendships in his five-hour Happy Hour to the gently, teasingly twinned encounters of Asako I & II. His trifurcated Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is no different in this regard. We see long conversations in which people navigate tricky interpersonal situations. Through three separate short films, a placid framing draws gentle observation to words’ power to shift a dynamic in ways the participants in the scene might not even notice until it’s too late. Here’s a movie engaged with the intangible mysteries of connection: How much of our relationships—romantic and otherwise—exist as our own fantasies projected onto others? And how much of what we define as ourselves is instead our own assumptions about how others think of us?

The shorts in the triptych are dazzling and delicate dances of emotion and influence, openness and guardedness, attuned to the risk inherent in any exchange. In the first, a young woman shares with her friend about a great first date. That friend, though, doesn’t let on that she starts to recognize the man being described. Secondly, an older college student carrying on an affair with a younger one agrees to help him attempt to blackmail a professor he blames for career troubles. She does so by attending office hours and reading aloud a salacious passage from the teacher’s latest novel. Lastly, and most satisfyingly, a woman thinks she’s stumbled into a happenstance encounter with an old high school classmate, and hopes she can finally unburden herself of decades-old regret. Each story arrives, at some point, to a new personal or relational understanding for these characters, but in a way that feels as natural as lived experience, and as artful as a finely honed dialogue.

These scenes unfold with the patience and precision of a gemlike short story—tough, beautiful, spare, and packed with emotional intelligence in every syllable and gesture for maximum thoughtful impact. So small are the shifts they chart, and so hushed in design and simple in movement, that it makes each upending of expectation or revelation of character all the more revelatory. I found myself practically floating on air after the film’s final flourishes of insight. It digs so deeply into its characters lives, drawing out loneliness in and a yearning for meaning out of friendships, romances, and other entanglements. And it does so by imbuing the silences and the spaces between the words with as much weight as the lines themselves, allowing the fine cast to dance across deceptively small moments with the emotional clarity we only get from deep contemplation.

How satisfying, then, that Drive My Car, Hamaguchi’s other film of 2021, sustains a similar expression of deeply observed empathy and intricate emotional balances for three compelling hours. As Fortune and Fantasy finds three small ways people’s lives are disrupted by simple shifts in their understandings of someone in their life, Car is even more concretely about this sort of communication. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, it’s built on the foundational assumption that we know as much about the people in our lives from what they avoid saying as we do what they do choose to share. There’s that interest in underplayed observation of small shifts of character or situation, where these intricate, delicate moments of change and connection are both gradual and all at once, major and yet never more than the soft touch of something patiently developed and achingly real. It layers the complications of character and situation with subtle attention to detail, and payoffs that satisfy before you even know they were set up.

One might recognize these qualities here as in a great interior work from a master of the short story form—an Anton Chekhov, say, about whom George Saunders recently wrote: “One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.” And so it is with Hamaguchi here. He takes a series of situations built on repetitions, repeated circumstances and situations, the rhythms of routines. He films them in patient, steady frames. His characters, too, are stuck in habits of mind. But instead of allowing for the encroachment of stasis, his approach offers variety, each pass through a routine showing us more, deepening our understanding of and connection to the people involved.

It takes as its lead character a stage actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who begins the movie starring in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and then, a couple years later, agrees to travel to Hiroshima in order to direct a production of the same. In the time between, his seemingly happy marriage comes to a sudden end. She (Reika Kirishima), a writer who loved inventing stories as she told them to him in post-coital bursts of creativity, and who helped him practice his lines by recording all the other parts on cassette for him to listen in his car, was a centering force in his life. Without her, he’s lost. He’s mourning this ending, and hasn’t yet found a new start. So he’s reluctant to take this new job, and even more reluctant to find the theater’s insurance demands they hire a driver (Toko Miura) to take him from practices to his hotel. He was hoping to use that time to listen to his long-gone wife’s voice. Instead, he’s forced, slowly but surely, on long trips and in practice sessions alike, to engage with others in the world again.

The film is transporting, moving, about art as a vehicle for expression and connection, with one’s self as much as with others. It’s about that indescribable moment of transcendence when connecting with greater truths beyond the specifics of the particular performance, and how that can feed back into one’s conception of self and relationship. In their long practice sessions for the play, our lead is committed to performing with each actor speaking in his or her native language—Japanese, Korean, sign language. It’s a move that makes them feel more remote form each other, practicing timing as much as anything, at first. But acting is reacting. Rehearsals should be about learning to listen. It’s not too pat to say this is a skill that should transfer to these troubled lives beyond the artifice of the stage, the performance of life.

Here’s a movie that becomes about speaking, listening, hearing, signaling. Here’s a movie about how to move beyond what appears to separate, and finding true, meaningful connection—friendship, collaboration, understanding—with someone. It’s about losing yourself to find yourself. There’s little wonder why the movie is rich with casually deployed symbolism—a lost man letting himself be guided around; actors who don’t understand each other learning to relate; a new chance in a city that couldn’t represent life and death, and destruction and rebirth, any more. The movie’s repetitions become fruitfully full of variation and meaning, and the characters, so well drawn all the way through, become only more vivid—breathtakingly engaged in their work and in each other. As one says about the process of actors discovering their roles: “It drags out the real you.”

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