Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

It might be frightening, when you think of it, how much of life is dependent on coincidence. Chance encounters, some sparking lifelong connection others destined only for aching memory, are after all what life is all about. Given a little imagination, the heroes of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triptych of accidental meetings Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Guzen to Sozo) each begin to work through their personal traumas, easing their loneliness in fleeting yet profound connections with others. “I’m glad I met you” one woman says to another, imagination and reality for a moment blurred as they role-play themselves towards a greater accommodation with the missed opportunities of the past. 

“Could you dare to believe in something less assuring than magic?” the anti-heroine of the first episode asks her former lover, undermining the central thesis in suggesting that sometimes coincidence is just that and everything else mere fantasy an attempt to convince oneself that life is grander than it is. Her friend, Tsugumi (Hyunri), excitedly tells her about the best night of her life born of a serendipitous meeting with a man who might be her soulmate but was also wounded, frightened of falling in love, still carrying the scars of betrayal after being cheated on two years previously.

What Tsugumi didn’t know is that Mieko (Kotone Furukawa) is the cheating girlfriend who broke the heart of her star-crossed lover Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), but now Mieko’s sense of betrayal is two-fold. Tellingly, Mieko refers to her friend as “Gumi”, but to Kazuaki she’s the “Tsu” to his “Ka”, literally torn in two while Mieko both fears the loss of her friend and resents the love she herself discarded being picked up by another. The thought of the two of them, a perfect whole as she later admits, together near destroys her. When Kazuaki unwittingly invades their private space she has a choice, indulging in a moment of destructive fantasy which threatens to torpedo her friendship only for Hamaguchi to pull a Hong Sang-soo, zoom in and rewind, to allow her to make a more mature decision albeit one that leaves her exiled but allows a more positive path towards a freer future having let go of this brief moment of emotional trauma. 

But what if your emotional trauma is longer lasting, leaving you feeling isolated unable to understand why it is you’re not quite like everyone else and for some reason they won’t forgive you for it. Married housewife and mother Nao (Katsuki Mori) has gone back to college and is having an illicit affair with a much younger student but is frustrated not to be included in campus life in part blaming her sense of alienation on being so much older while also internalising a sense of discomfort that tells her it’s always been this way. Her lover, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), suggests it’s all her own fault, that she doesn’t know how to “go with the flow” and “puts up walls”. He meanwhile, is shallow and entitled, resentful towards a stuffy professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who held him back a year because his grades in French, a required subject, weren’t good enough.

To get back at him, he emotionally blackmails Nao into helping him set up a scandal but Segawa has a literal open door policy and their meeting eventually turns into something deeper even if Nao is forced to admit that a part of her craved this kind of seduction fantasy. Only Segawa, a distant, pensive man, meets her as an equal, tells her that he thinks her inability to go with the flow is no bad thing but a strength in that she lives by her own desires rather than those of an overly conformist society. An ironic mistake, however, later cheapens their profound connection spelling disaster for both while Sasaki it seems, as men like him often do, unfairly prospers plunging Nao into an even deeper sense of despair and self-loathing. “My own stupidity makes me want to cry” she confesses, offered hope only by another chance encounter with the unresolved past. 

Then again, do you actually need to meet to find resolution or is fantasy enough to overcome a sense of loss or missed opportunity? In the midst of a freak technological disaster in which the internet has been temporarily disabled, IT systems engineer Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) attends her 20-year high school reunion but the person she wanted to see wasn’t there. She thinks she sees her in fleeting moment passing each other on an escalator. The other woman seems to recognise her too, the pair of them caught in an escalator loop one chasing the other and thereafter visiting the other woman’s home. But as they talk they realise their chance encounter was mutual case of mistaken identity if one that exposes the similarities between them, connected Natsuko later puts it by an unfillable hole in the heart. Aya (Aoba Kawai), a middle-aged housewife, lives comfortably in a well-appointed suburban home but confesses herself wondering why she’s alive at all, feeling as if “time is slowly killing me”.

Not wanting to waste the “dramatic meeting” they role-play the conversation they might have had, Natsuko regretting having given up too easily on her high school love not wanting to cause her further pain but now realising that her care was mistaken, the pain was necessary for them both and its absence has condemned them to kind of limbo of unresolved longing and regret. Aya meanwhile reveals something else, a “boyish” friend for whom her feelings remain unclear though the final moment of connection in which she remembers her long forgotten name which literally translates as “hope” proves profoundly moving in the momentary connection between these two women, strangers but not, meeting by chance and bound by imagination each restoring something to the other if only in fantasy. 

A meditation on distance and intimacy, Hamaguchi’s series of empathetic character studies owes an obvious debt to Rohmer with a dash of Hong Sang-soo but is perhaps kinder allowing the randomness of life to provoke a gradual liberation in each of these wounded souls if only temporarily. The question might less be if you can believe in something less assuring than magic, than if you can learn to trust the strange mysticism of serendipity. 


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Complicity (コンプリシティ, Kei Chikaura, 2018)

Complicity posterWith an ageing population and an economy trapped in a long period of stagnation, Japan has found itself in an awkward moment of possible crisis as it begins to realise it will need to embrace immigration or face a serious labour shortage. Like many nations, unfortunately, much of Japan remains uncomfortable with the idea of overseas labour especially when it comes to “low skilled” work in construction, manufacturing, and casual jobs such those in restaurants and convenience stores. Given government intransigence and pressing need, workers from other areas of Asia are often employed illegally and subject to exploitation by gangs or unscrupulous employers.

The hero of Kei Chikaura’s Complicty (コンプリシテ), Chen Liang (Lu Yulai), finds himself in just this position as he leaves his sickly mother and feisty grandma alone in rural China in the hope of making enough money in Japan to come home and restart the family business. What he discovers, however, is that he’s essentially been trafficked as cheap labour and is already in hock for an ID card he was conned into paying three times the going rate for on the pretext it was “safer”. Now living under the name Liu Wei, Chen Liang is disturbed to receive calls on his new phone intended for his namesake but is tempted when Liu Wei receives a job offer from an employment agency. Passing himself off as his cover identity, Chen Liang takes the job only latterly realising it’s the rather incongruous position of a trainee chef in a family-owned soba restaurant.

Against expectation, ageing soba chef Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji) and his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto) are warm and welcoming people who are actually a little bit excited that someone from China wants to learn about soba. Taken in almost as a member of the family, Chen Liang begins to feel conflicted – he is after all lying to them, at least about his name and circumstances, and his presence in their home might cause them trouble if he is ever found out. Meanwhile, he also strikes up a friendship with an artist who is learning Mandarin but has to lie to her too, pretending they may one day meet up in Beijing when in reality he has never even been there.

His burgeoning romance with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka) is what precipitates his downfall as she, unaware he is undocumented, reports his stolen wallet to the police. The lies do not stop there – Chen Liang is also lying to his worried mother back at home who thinks he’s working in an office, while she is simultaneously lying to him in pretending everything’s fine in order to facilitate his “happy” life in Japan where he is supposed to make lots of money and come back a wealthy man. In order to make his dream succeed, Chen Liang must become Liu Wei at the exclusion of all else, forsaking his life as Chen Liang and living carefully as if he has nothing to fear.

Chen Liang is onto a good thing and has fared much better than some of his friends who either got themselves picked up by the police for doing the gang’s dirty work or found themselves out in the cold with no feasible way to get back “home”. Hiroshi’s son, with whom he seems to have some kind of bad family history, looks down on Chen Liang unable to understand why his father employed someone from China when the business is on the rocks. His attitude seems to be one shared by many (though not the universally supportive customers in Hiroshi’s soba shop) who see only difference rather than commonality. Despite the language barrier, Hiroshi and Chen Liang are often able to communicate through written characters, while another poignant moment of bonding sees Chen Liang sing the Mandarin lyrics over the top of Hazuki’s cheerful refrain of a popular Japanese song by Teresa Teng beloved all across Asia. Hiroshi himself was born in Beijing at the end of the war – a painful reminder of the complicated history between the two nations, but also one of how much they are interconnected and how little place of birth has to do with cultural identity.

Emphasising how much they have in common rather than the various ways in which Chen Liang differs from the world around him, Chikaura paints a much more sympathetic portrait of a migrant worker than the one usually found in the media. Filling the void left behind by Hiroshi’s own resentful son, Chen Liang becomes a valued and trusted member of the family who are in a sense “harbouring” him but to protect rather than exploit. Pushed to go to Japan despite his misgivings and drifting into the soba shop job through accidental opportunism, Chen Liang had in a sense abandoned his identity in avoiding making concrete decisions. Being Liu Wei was also a way to hide from his insecurities and fears for the future, but only through the unconditional love he received under false pretences is he finally able to reclaim his name, fugitive but free at last. A powerful plea for empathy and cross cultural connection, Complicity is a beautifully drawn character study in which kindness and compassion eventually open new paths for a conflicted young man trying to find his place in an often hostile world.


Complicity was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s – Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase

Mandarin version – I Only Care About You

Antenna (アンテナ, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2004)

AntennaScarring, both literal and mental, is at the heart of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s third feature, Antenna (アンテナ). Though it’s ironic that indentation should be the focus of a film whose title refers to a sensitive protuberance, Kumakiri’s adaptation of a novel by Randy Taguchi is indeed about feeling a way through. Anchored by a standout performance from Ryo Kase, Antenna is a surreal portrait of grief and repressed guilt as a family tragedy threatens to consume all of those left behind.

Philosophy student Yuichiro (Ryo Kase) is currently working on a project which aims to reevaluate how pain is felt through attempting to identify with the pain of others. To do this he plans to investigate the S&M scene but before he can get started, a painful episode from his past is reawakened by current events. Yuichiro’s younger sister, Marie, has been missing since failing to return home from school one day when she was only eight years old. When news reports appear that another girl around the same age has been held captive in a nearby apartment complex since around the time Marie went missing hopes are sparked only to be dashed. Still no closer to discovering what happened to his younger sister, Yuichiro carries the guilt of having been unable to protect her as well as the inability to remember exactly what happened on that fateful day.

Matters come to a head when Yuichiro’s younger brother (their mother was pregnant with him at the time of the disappearance) turns up on his doorstep. Yuya (Daisuke Kizaki) repeatedly claims that Marie is about to return as he can feel her through his “antenna” (“like the horns of a snail”) and has a full scale fit aboard the train back. Things being what they are, the doctors advise Yuichiro to spend sometime at home as his distracted mother is no shape to cope with Yuya’s increasingly odd behaviour. A dutiful son, Yuichiro does what he can for what’s left of his family but his childhood home is far from a good environment for him.

Soon after Marie’s disappearance, both Yuichiro’s father and his uncle Shige who’d lived with them both died, leaving only Yuichiro’s mother and baby brother behind them. Unable to come to terms with Marie’s disappearance, Yuichiro’s mother has found religion, hosting Buddhist prayer sessions at the house and bringing in Feng Shui experts to try and heal the lingering sense of tragedy still present in the house. She has also become convinced that her second son, Yuya, is in fact the returned spirit of her daughter, raising him as a girl and dressing him in Marie’s clothes. This may explain some of Yuya’s conflicting behaviour and repeated insistence that his sister is “returning” in so much as something of her personality has become the ghost in his machine.

Once back in the house, Yuichiro’s mental state becomes ever more precarious as his memories of his sister’s disappearance begin to flicker to the surface. Overcome with repressed guilt, Yuichiro once again begins self harming by slashing his chest with a box cutter. Easing the mental pain with the physical, Yuirichiro finally begins to address some of his long buried trauma through repeated meetings with the dominatrix he was interviewing for his project. Undergoing a kind of S&M lead sex therapy, Yuichiro is slowly guided back through his memories to events he was too young to understand at the time and only now is fully able to comprehend.

Throughout his flashbacks Yuichiro is always sidelined, perched behind barriers or shut away by closed doors as the adults argue and loudly discuss things they claim are not suitable for children to hear. Crucial moments find him peaking through keyholes and seeing something he knew was not quite right but without knowing why. These incomplete and incomprehensible memories are the ones which haunt him, unresolvable but still trailing the guilt behind them of having seen yet done nothing.

Told in a slight non-linear fashion through frequent flashbacks, the film adopts a dreamlike tone and surreal imagery to make sense of the more extreme elements. The final sequence itself is either a hallucination or a dream that takes on a magical realist quality as the past is finally allowed to drift away from its lodging place, freeing up a space for light to return to the otherwise darkened house.

An intense exploration of buried trauma and childhood guilt, Antenna is a dark tale but does offer a glimmer of hope after all its hellish meandering. Kumakikri keeps things straightforward but his considered compositions have a strange kind of beauty despite the ugliness of the narrative. Embracing a number a taboo subjects coupled with strong emotion and explicit content, Antenna is not an easy watch but rewarding for those who can brave its extremes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)