Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 14, 2021 10:11 pm 
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Suave trilogy

As with the rest of his oeuvre, duplication and mirroring of female characters once again inform[s] Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest work, Guzen to sozo. It would not be out of place to make a literary analogy and, if one were to regard his two previous films (Happy Hour and Asako I & II) as novels, this new work could be described as a collection of short stories. The film’s recurring rhythm amplifies this effect. The three episodes, which each revolve around a woman, are in turn divided into three movements, like a piece of music. They tell stories of an unexpected love triangle, a failed seduction trap, and an encounter that results from a misunderstanding. The fragmentation serves to emphasize rather than undermine the exquisitely organic storytelling and mise en scène. Although most of the action takes place in a single space and involves just two actors, not once does it feel like filmed theatre. The secret lies not only in the writing, but also in the notion of a more complex temporality in each episode that flirts with science fiction in the final installment. The moments we witness are crystallized into touching universal destinies marked by choices, regrets, deception and coincidences. They are the film’s true protagonists. - BERLINALE blurb.

The Berlinale's glowing description fits with its recent selection of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy for its no. 2 award, the Grand Jury Prize. It seems like the Hamaguchi feature of the year to see isn't this one, though, but Drive My Car, which won Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury this year at Cannes. The New York Film Festival has added to its custom lately of including two Hong Sang-soos in its Main Slate and included both Hamaguchis. ( Due to missing the NYFf I have to wait a while longer to see Drive My Car.)

The Japanese director, who has been A-List for five years since his over five-hour compendium Happy Hour (ND/NF 2016) brought him to international attention, shows a knack for understated, exquisitely modulated social dramas and here provides elegant arthouse entertainment. He goes for doubling women - or men. His 2018 Asako I & II (NYFF) was a disappointment; it suffered from a familiar high concept and seemed like a Young Adult novel for tired grownups. This time also he has a tall, very good-looking young man, though it's the two women who fight over him in the first segment that get the attention. In the second one, there is a really embarrassing attempt to titillate. A married, slightly older girlfriend (Katsuki Mori) reads an absurdly overt sexual passage from his new prize-winning novel to her sex buddy (Shouma Kai)'s professor ( (Kiyohiko Shibukawa)) who has flunked him, at the sex-buddy's request to stage a "honey pot" incident, and mire the prof in scandal. It backfires in more ways than one, and she meets the sex buddy five years later on a bus and they update each other. While the first segment sparkles, despite its superficiality, the second goes dead in the middle.

The third segment is by far the most emotionally resonant. In it two women 20 years out of high school meet on the Sendai station escalator and stage a one-on-one reunion, only to discover that they are not the two other women they'd wanted to meet, not classmates at all. But having realized this, and due perhaps to the mixture off boredom and politeness of the woman who plays hostess at her beautiful house (Fusako Urabe), they salvage the situation movingly by role-playing and thus letting out the feelings they have long had bottled up toward the other, missing, woman. That one of the two, the guest in the house (Aoba Kawai), is lesbian may help make the sequence more convincingly resonant. But the real, if slightly clichéd, hidden truth is that the woman with the husband and child and lovely house feels as empty as the lovelorn lesbian who has never replaced her high school sweetheart.

Hamaguchi works out all these - except for the uncomfortable sex passage-reading in segment 2 - with delicacy and exquisite tact. I liked the first segment, especially the first of its scenes in the back of a taxicab when a beautiful woman (Hyunri) tells her cute Dutch-boy bob-haired model "best friend" (Kotone Furukawa) all about the wonderful new man she has just met (Ayumu Nakajima), not knowing he's her friend's ex. We are so charmed we don't ask for a while how come she doesn't know he's her friend's ex, if they're besties. It is also fun to see the - tall, slender, handsome - young man fight over which woman he's going to choose, and not knowing how it's going to turn out. It's artificial, but it's entertaining and nicely done. It seems like a modern Japanese version of some period Hollywood romantic comedy.

Except for the reading of the testicle-mouthing passage from his own novel to the blank-faced professor, which seemed interminable from the first minute, these three "short stories" (if you like) are enjoyable and never drag. Still, this whole film seems like treading water on Hamaguchi's part between more important work. I'm beginning not to be sure that Hamaguchi is ever really going to thrill me the way, in the 2018 NYFF, Koreeda's Shoplifters and even more, Lee Chang-dong's Burning did. But I haven't seen Drive My Car.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy 偶然と想像 (Guzen to sozo, "Chance and imagination"), 121 mins., debuted Buenos Aires (BAFICI) Mar. 23, 2021, showing also at Hong Kong, Moscow, Berlin, Udine, showing at at least 20 other international festivals. US release Oct. 29, 2021. Current Metacriic rating: 87%. (Drive My Car: 89%.) Now on DVD and Blu-ray in the US (Mar. 22, 2022).



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