High anticipation for a new Ryūsuke Hamaguchi film is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Japanese director completed his debut film Passion around the tail end of the Bush administration, but it took until the release of Happy Hour, his five-hour opus, in 2015 before he found international acclaim. The director followed that with Asako I & II, a widely admired adaptation of Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel that was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or in 2018.
Premiering in competition this week at the online Berlin Film Festival, his latest is Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a thematically intertwined series of three short stories that follows a trio of characters in differing states of longing. As a work of art it is overwhelmingly beautiful, a spiky dialectic on modern love that is as deeply moving as it is expertly crafted and observed–and possibly his finest film yet. On a Zoom call from an office across the globe, Hamaguchi took a minute to talk us through his process, the joys of coincidence, and his love for John Cassavetes.
The Film Stage: I wanted to start by asking how you arrived at this title and the original Japanese title. They both feel like perfect fits.
Ryūsuke Hamaguchi: The Japanese title directly translates into something more like Coincidence and Imagination, so it’s a pretty direct title compared to the English. I think it’s a nice title that picks at some of the important parts about this film, the part about coincidence. I think coincidence allows for people to imagine other possibilities, other worlds. And I feel like the title captures that really well. And I believe that coincidence is also something that leads two people to imagine possibilities.
You mention other worlds. The final section of the film dips into the realm of science fiction, but in this quiet kind of way. What was your thought process for including sci-fi in this story, and what is your own relationship with sci-fi?
So, in terms of the sci-fi element in story three, I was thinking about Covid. The first two stories in this collection of shorts were shot in 2019, so I didn’t have anything with Covid in mind. However, the third story was actually shot in July 2020 and in Japan; that was after the first state of emergency was over, so that element of Covid was definitely in my mind. I’m no expert in sci-fi, but when I was a student I studied under director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and when I was studying under him he gave us this impossible assignment—which was to remake Solaris. So when I was tasked with this, I read a lot of sci-fi, and in doing that I realized that sci-fi is often rooted in some kind of reality. However, it’s seeing reality in a different way.
So I wanted to do something similar to that through this third story. In today’s world, right now, there’s the lockdown happening under Covid. However, in my story—for the third one—what I had was to almost have the opposite of what’s going on today. So the virtual is locked down, as opposed to today, where we’re living on the opposite spectrum, where everything is happening virtually. So in this sense I felt like I would still be able to work with the original story and the original concept whilst not ignoring the situation of Covid. And I felt that the audience can also maybe experience that as well.
You mentioned that story three was the only part filmed after 2019. What kind of challenges did you face filming during Covid?
I would say the difficulties we had were pretty general and quite common, in that we had to disinfect our hands, keep social distancing between the cast and the staff. We had to wear masks at all times. And it was sometimes difficult to find a location we could shoot in. But we were working with a very small production team for this, so in that sense there wasn’t a huge difficulty in maintaining social distance, especially because we were often shooting in quite large spaces. Regarding the actors, there were moments that they would be in proximity with each other, but we had already gotten their approval to be able to do this. And if anything, more so than challenges, there was a lot of happiness in finally being able to see people in real life.
You have worked with improvisational theatre in the past, yet the scenes in your films feel so precisely crafted. Do you still use elements of improvisation?
With Happy Hour there was definitely some improvisational acting in there, but actually there’s not too much improvisation work happening in that movie. Sure, there’s improv happening in some of the scenes, like the long workshop scene, but in actual fact I would say about 90% of the film was spoken exactly as scripted. And regarding this film, I would say almost 100% of what’s being spoken is exactly according to the script.
That all said, I do find the improvisational atmosphere to be really important. So while in the dialogues there’s really not much ad-libbing going on, I did want to emphasize with my actors to bring in whatever emotion they wanted, whatever emotion they were feeling at that moment and use those emotions to say the dialogue. So in that sense I like to keep the atmosphere of improvisation alive.
Your films often feature long conversations that have a unique but kind of subtle complexity. When you’re creating these scenes, do you start from a small idea and build the dialogue around, or is it a different process?
So I actually start with thinking about the structure of the film as a whole. What I also do is start off with the most unrealistic ideas. So I have that unrealistic idea, and the reason why I start there is because I find that that’s the way to make a movie interesting. If you start somewhere else then it’s not as interesting. So what I do is I have this unrealistic structure, and then once I really start writing the scenes I try to use words that are realistic. And so I have a kind of combat, or a fight within my head, between unrealistic structures and realistic characters.
Almost every film deals with time in some way, but here it seems an even more important factor. Maybe you could talk a bit about this.
As you saw, I have occasional long takes within the film. And the reason why long takes appear in my films is that these moments are when I feel that the acting is great, when I feel the actors are giving a great performance. The way we shot this film is, we shot from many different angle—and it’s kind of a stupid way to go about shooting, in that sense, but it actually leaves a lot of editing possibilities. And so when I do leave a long take it really is me deciding that I want to stay on this acting. So I really hope that the audience, when they see a long take, can also feel that way.
I think the idea of the passage of time is in relation to coincidence, which is a big theme in this film. And I believe that coincidences rarely happen; you can’t have too many coincidences happen at once. And that’s why, in the second story, you jump to five years ahead, because coincidences only happen sometimes. So since this film was about coincidences, yet these are short films, I had to think about how much time should pass in order to differentiate some of these coincidences.
Your films often have stark shifts in tone, from intimacy to tragedy or comedy. Does this come naturally?
I don’t tend to really strive for comedy or tragedy necessarily. But I realize it can be seen moment by moment, in one way or the other. But my general rule is that my protagonists are very serious about something. And even if it’s something very trivial from an outsider perspective, it’s a serious thing for them. And even if they might be wrong, they’re trying to solve this and it’s a very big matter for them. That’s sort of a general rule I have for all my protagonists. They’re living life seriously, in these ways. So because of that I think these characters can, in turn, be both tragic but also funny at the same time. The seriousness in my characters is something that’s fundamental for me.
Your last three films have centered mostly on female characters. I’m curious if there is a specific reason for this.
I do feel that my films have men as well. I do also have male protagonists and there are works about men, so it’s not always women. But I do believe, after working on Happy Hour, I realized what’s interesting about having woman protagonists in my films is that when I have my women protagonists live according to their desires, to chase after their desires, it always clashes against something about society. And so, in trying to depict these women going about living out their desires, I also realized I’m able to depict something about society as a whole, which I find really interesting.
Watching the film, there are some little echoes of silent cinema and even French New Wave. I know you speak about Cassavetes a lot. What is it about his work that you admire?
I, of course, like silent films. I also like French New Wave cinema—these are films that I watched as a student. I found them in the cinema. I also like classic Hollywood and Japanese films as well, but as you mentioned, Cassavetes really does have a special place in me. When I was 20 years old I watched the film Husbands and it’s still my favorite film. It’s one of those films where I feel the more times I watch it, there’s really no other film like it.
The reason I really loved the film when I was 20 is that I really felt that life was being portrayed in this film. The protagonists of Husbands are three white males in their 40s, or something, so they would seem to me as if they were very separate from me. However, I just felt in watching these characters that they were living a fuller life than I was. When comparing the lives of what I saw on the screen against my own life, my own life started to feel more fake. And it was the first time that I felt that way. And very few films, other than these Cassavetes films, have really made me feel those things.
Now that I think back on it, a conclusion that I come to is that a Cassavetes film is not a film. I make films because I like films. But there’s a part of me that thinks so. By saying that a Cassavetes film is not a film, what I mean is that I think the general sense of what a film is is that there’s a budget and then there’s a schedule and within the schedule you sort of use up the budget. And that’s the broad system of how a film is made. And perhaps Cassavetes is still part of that system. However, I feel like at the end of the day his films kind of go beyond that systematic way of thinking. And so he’s not making a film within this idea of budgets or within the idea of schedules, and because his films are so away from the systematic thinking we are able to see something that goes beyond that. That’s something I finally understood once I was in my 30s, and while it still takes a lot of courage to try to get close to something like that, I’m still trying to attempt.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Mr Hamaguchi’s answers were translated via an interpreter.