I am curious if future cinephiles will ever come around to think of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy as anything other than "Hamaguchi Ryusuke's other film from 2021". Winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Fesitval certainly isn't a little deal, but it doesn't seem to have done too very much to raise the film's profile. Certainly not since it got fully swamped by the director's, well, other film from 2021, Drive My Car, which premiered several months later en route to becoming one of the very biggest critical darlings of the year, while also very clearly representing the moment where Hamaguchi "arrived" as a major international filmmaker, one of the folks we'll all have to keep track of going forward. This is, to be entirely fair, at least partially because Drive My Car is the better film.

Still, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy has its charms; it probably even has many charms, if you're more onboard with its overall aesthetic priorities than I am. Which wouldn't take much, because its aesthetic priorities are frankly of very limited interest to me; this is the kind of movie that critics routinely describe as "literary", setting up very manicured interpersonal situations that play out over the course of extremely long conversations that are full of highly articulate philosophical observations that lay out entire ideological and aesthetic worldviews, paragraphs at a time; dialogue of a sort that feels a bit more at home on the page than on the screen, if I may be permitted to grouse ever so slightly. Meanwhile, the camera is mostly just there as a recording device to get the conversations down, mostly in unmoving long takes. Still, there's a gap between "I, personally, do not very much like this thing" and "this thing was done poorly", and indeed Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy does this thing quite extraordinarily well.

Amplifying the "literary" quality, the film is an anthology of three unrelated stories, all around 40 minutes long, and they all have a very unmistakable "short story" feeling to them, despite being originals. I would be inclined to say that every one of them is better than the one before it, which  does make for an opening 40 minutes that feel a little bit flatter than one wants from a Berlinale prizewinner, but there's a great deal of pleasure to be had in watching a film that constantly seems to be improving on itself (even in the last third, I'd say it picks up steam and ends better than it starts).

This does mean that the first sequence, "Magic (or Something Less Assuring)" is at least of something to be gotten through. It's both the least interesting third of the movie visually, and the one that does the least with its narrative hook; a pity, because it's probably the best hook. After a photo shoot (which is, by itself, perhaps the single most interestingly-shot part of the entire movie, grainy and overlit and dreamy as classical music plays. It's not likely an accident that this is also just about the only pat of the movie that's not dialogue-driven), model Meiko (Furukawa Kotone) rides back into the city with her friend Tsugumi (Hyunri), who is just raving and raving about her new boyfriend. The specific words Tsugumi uses trigger a memory deep inside Meiko, and she ends up going to a downtown office instead of her home, there to confront her ex-boyfriend Kazuaki (Nakajima Ayumu). Who is, as it turns out, exactly the same man that Tsugumi was just going on about. The next morning, Meiko "officially meets" Kazuaki, where she is confronted with the decision of whether or not to try to ruin the budding relationship and the further decision about if the first decision is motivated by protecting Tsugumi or winning Kazuaki back.

This is a crafty enough scenario, but that's just the thing - it's a scenario, and I don't know that Hamaguchi really does much to expand it beyond that. The entire narrative consists of just three separate conversations, which, now that I think about it, is more than the third and best sequence can claim. But there, the talking is framed in a visually dynamic and dramatically propulsive way. Here, that first conversation in the cab is just endless, and while I take it that the point is to capture how Meiko feels having to listen to her friend go on and on, it's just an excessively drab, lifeless sequence.

Nothing here is terribly interesting to look at; very late in the segment, there's a wobbly zoom in and zoom back that made me feel like the whole movie had just exploded, and I suppose you could argue that the unbelievably plain aesthetic is in part designed to give those zooms the extravagant power they need to have in that exact moment. But that's pretty generous. Furukawa, meanwhile, is pretty much alone in giving a strong performance; her co-stars are fine, but Hamaguchi cedes so much of the narrative drive to Meiko that they have very little chance of standing out.

The wheel of fortune and fantasy then turns to "Door Wide Open", and initially, I didn't think that things were better. First up, we meet Sasaki (Kai Shouma), pleading for sympathy from taciturn professor Segawa (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), and getting none of it. Jump ahead in time a bit, and the vengefully sullen Sasaki watches Segawa receive a prestigious literary award, seething. And here he strikes upon an idea: why not passively-aggressively force his lover, Nao (Mori Katsuki), to perpetrate his revenge plot?

At this point, Sasaki falls out of the movie, to its immediate benefit. Not quite all of the rest of "Door Wide Open", but a whole damn lot of it, consists of Nao arriving at Segawa's office, hoping to trap him in a compromising position; he's suspicious (or just strategic) enough to insist on keeping his door open, somewhat ruining her attempted seduction. But as they chat, they end up delving into such remarkably tough truths that her desire for revenge is entirely scuttled, in favor of simply trying to understand the complicated mysteries of another human being.

"Door Wide Open" is, I am tempted to say, the best-written leg of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy; it's also the plainest, most straightforward story, which means that Hamaguchi can focus entirely on the conversation itself. Mori and Shibukawa give him whole lot to work with here, the latter providing something of a flat concrete barrier for the former to keep working her way around, though body language and vocal tone. Eventually, it becomes something much quieter and harder to process, in the good way; it is dedicated to the idea that people are a weird mess of mutually-contradictory impulses, teasing this out at a length that ends up feeling better earned than in the first segment, if only because the actors are more evenly balanced.

I still remained unconvinced at this point that Hamaguchi actually cares that he's working in a visual medium (the second segment also has a single zoom, which made me slightly dazzled by the thought that that was going to be the whole of the film's visual storytelling strategy - one zoom every 40 minutes). Happily, then, "Once Again" ends Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy on a string of genuinely interesting, beautiful images, built around a story that's such a wonderful slow-burn, terrifically well-acted by Urabe Fusako and Kawai Aoba, that even its elaborate literary contrivances feel honest and organic.

This last story begins on its one bum note, a strange backstory about life after a computer virus ruined e-mail all over the world, or something to that effect. There is not one single element of the remaining narrative that actually requires that bit of sci-fi, and I'm sure Hamaguchi had some particular reason for including it, but I could never tell you what that reason is. Regardless, the action quickly lands on two women whose names are not shared with us for what turns out to be a good reason; they cross paths on a train station escalator and the one played by Urabe (just coming from a dismal experience at a high school reunion), recognises the one played by Kawai. It takes a beat longer for Kawai to place Urabe, but in short order they've gone back to the latter's home to reminisce, only to find that they aren't providing each other emotionally with what they hoped for. And that recognition somehow frees them up to feel something much more important. I'm sorry to be vague, it's the second half of the final third of an anthology film.

But it's also the highlight of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, with the actors handling some downright contrived drama with simple, grounded realism. Plus, Hamaguchi and cinematographer Iioka Yukiko finally start to share their images in a proactive, leading way, even before we arrive in the geometrically daunting house. The shifting diagonals of the escalator provide an early hint of how "Once Again" is going to shape its images, using banal details of the everyday to segment the frame and move its characters in and out of segments together. Once they do get to the house, some beautiful use of ghostly reflections in big glass windows effectively double the filmmakers' chances to play around with this, and the result is a film with a subdued but constantly thoughtful and vital visual style that matches faultlessly with with the literary precision of the writing. Frankly, if all of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was on par with "Once Again" - or if it was just a single standalone 40-minute movie - I'd be at least somewhat tempted to join in the nascent cult of Hamaguchi. As it is, the first two thirds are too much not my thing - a lot of talking against the absence of a meaningful visual style. But there's enough here that, even without this feature's more robust sibling cementing his reputation as A Big Deal, I should certainly want to file Hamaguchi's name away for future reference.