The geometry of desire is elegantly plotted in “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” a wistful, moving, outwardly unassuming movie. In three segments, men and women circle one another, talking and talking some more. As they exchange glances, confessions and accusations, their cascading words become either bridges or walls. Throughout these effusive roundelays, they yearn — for meaning, former lovers, lost intimacy, an escape.
“Fortune and Fantasy” is among the latest talkathons from the Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, one of the more intriguing filmmakers to emerge in the last decade. If you haven’t heard of him, it isn’t surprising. The American market for foreign-language cinema has always been brutal, even before the pandemic, and his work has received scant theatrical distribution in the United States. But he’s a familiar name on the festival circuit, and both this movie and his superb “Drive My Car” were in the main slate at the recent New York Film Festival. (“Fortune” won a major prize at this year’s Berlin.)
If Hamaguchi were another generic French filmmaker, or if he made gore-splattered genre movies or was just more obvious, he might attract greater distributor interest. Though maybe not: The length of some of his work likely presents a hurdle. While “Fortune and Fantasy” runs a crisp two hours, “Drive My Car” is three, and “Happy Hour,” an epic of minimalism, runs more than five. More challenging still, presumably, are his narrative choices and understated visuals, which don’t conform to the current template for American indie cinema with its dramatic problems, moral instruction and enough pictorial prettiness to make the emotional bloodletting go down smoothly.
Hamaguchi’s realism is as constructed as that of any Sundance selection, but what distinguishes his work is his attention to ambiguity and to everyday moments, and his general avoidance of dramatic or melodramatic inflection. Things happen, terrible, heartbreaking things, though not necessarily onscreen. Instead, most of what you see has the flavor, rhythm and texture of quotidian life, which makes his artistic choices all the more intriguing and at times almost mysterious. You’re engrossed, but you may wonder why. (Hamaguchi cites John Cassavetes as a strong influence; the imprint of the French New Wave and the South Korean director Hong Sangsoo are also evident.)