Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

A 21st century spin on Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris, with the cinematic ingenuity of Hong Sang-soo, and an enchantingly light interpretation of Sirkian melodrama. Contrasting with Happy Hour, which had the sweep of an epic novel, Wheel of Fortune & Fantasy is a collection of three short stories, all revolving chance encounters, infidelity, romantic desire, and the melancholy in wondering what could have been. A young woman learns that her best friend has fallen for her ex-boyfriend, who she realizes she might still be in love with; an unfaithful housewife sets an erotic trap for a college professor, only to see her plot take an unexpected turn; two female strangers mistake each other for someone else from their pasts, and then engage in a playful bit of roleplay: each story has a wonderfully breezy surface, beneath which lies an undercurrent of longing and regret. It’s a testament to both Hamaguchi’s fine directorial hand and the modulated performances that the film’s emotion never even remotely threatens to overwhelm the film’s easy-going nature and warmth. With narrative action that’s almost entirely conversational, Hamaguchi is constantly finding ways to invigorate the dialogue and tempo: there’s an engaging mix of long two-shots and bracing, Ozu-like frontal views, an exquisite, very Hongian piano score, and soft, subtle shifts in mood, even when emotions flare or amorous tension heats up. While it might not reach the heights of Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II, Wheel is perfect in how the brevity of its episodes aligns with the fleeting moments of connection and intimacy it explores.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy Trailer

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is currently playing in limited theatrical release.

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VIFF 2021 Review: Wife of a Spy

Written by Anna Harrison

60/100

Horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy has all the elements of a thrilling period piece: beautiful costumes, state secrets, wartime backdrop, all of it anchored by Yu Aoi as Satoko, whose determination to uncover the truth regarding her husband, wealthy merchant Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), who may or not be a spy, and the government mysteries swirling around the edges of their lives. There’s an ever-growing sense of unease around them as the number of uniformed men throughout their home city of Kobe grows and World War II ramps up, but Wife of a Spy never quite lives up to the promise of its premise.

Satoko begins to suspect her husband of adultery, and then of spying after childhood-friend-cum-military-police-chief Taiji (Masahiro Higashide) confides his own suspicions in Satoko. Yusaku makes trips to Manchuria with his nephew Fumio (Ryota Bando) and returns with the beautiful Hiroko (Hyunri), who turns up dead soon after, and Taiji’s advice to Satoko becomes tinged with a threatening aura. Satoko reacts with horror at her husband’s actions, but as she picks at and begins to unravel the threads connecting everyone, her worldview slowly becomes more complicated, and the navigation of her life becomes that much more difficult. 

All of these plot machinations that lead Satoko to the truth are less interesting than the woman herself and how she interacts with them; the generic plot distracts from Aoi’s performance and the interesting ideas at play here. Yusaku’s secret trips are less compelling than the offhand comments about Western versus traditional Japanese dress (Yusaku and Satoko’s Western clothes and house design pile on even more suspicion) or Taiji’s fervent, unsettling nationalism in the face of a global conflict, and the performance that Aoi gives as Satoko elevates moments in the script that, in the hands of a lesser performance, could have tanked the movie.

Even with these missteps, Wife of a Spy has surprising grace when dealing with questions of nationalism and the atrocities committed during World War II. When we finally learn that Yusaku has uncovered evidence of (presumably) Unit 731’s war crimes in Manchuria, the film becomes less a paranoid thriller and more an interrogation of what it means to be patriotic, and thus becomes much more interesting as it forces Satoko’s blind nationalism to evolve into something more complex. 

Yet even as Satoko grapples with her own country’s transgressions, we watch American forces bomb Hiroshima, adding another layer of complexity as we are shown the unutterable destruction caused by the “good guys” to whom Yusaku was trying to pass information. Satoko’s grief is made all the more potent by the more complicated feelings she now has over Japan’s role in the war, and the final scene, while melodramatic, certainly packs a punch. As a spy thriller, Wife of a Spy leaves something to be desired, but as a lesson in gray morality and against excessive nationalism, it becomes something much more intriguing.

Wife of a Spy Trailer

Wife of a Spy was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival and is currently available in limited theatrical release and virtual cinema screening through Kino Lorber.

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