Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s unusual approach to filmmaking


The international profile of Japanese director Ryūsuke Hamaguchi has exploded over the past year, as he released two feature films that both caused a sensation on the festival circuit. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy premiered at the Berlinale and won the Silver Bear, while Drive my car played in competition in Cannes. He also co-wrote the war thriller The wife of a spy, directed by his former film teacher Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who received the Silver Lion at the 2020 Biennale. Although he had his breakthrough with 2015 Happy Hour, Hamaguchi is far from a newcomer. But before that five-hour epic, his films struggled to find distribution, and many are still hard to find outside of Japan. At best, they can resurface periodically in retrospectives. So both Drive my car and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy coming to the cinema almost at the same time offers a rare opportunity for moviegoers.

Of Happy Hour (2015), dir. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (Image courtesy Icarus Films)

Hamaguchi’s first feature film was Passion (2008), his thesis project at the Tokyo University of the Arts. It’s a tight, carefully written drama that taps into long-held desires and unspoken truths, set among a group of middle-class Tokyoites in their late twenties. He tentatively asks questions about the intricacies of relationships, which Hamaguchi’s later work will verbalize with much more eloquence. Spatial proximity is key in the film, whose visual grammar mainly uses partitioned domestic spaces as the backdrop to nodal sets. As his career progressed, Hamaguchi’s framing would remain intimate, but his camera would also relax and embrace larger spaces. In movies like Depths (2010), Asako I & II (2018), and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, the urban landscape becomes a place of escape as much as a funnel of introspection.

Of Asako I & II (2018), dir. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (Image courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Over the years, Hamaguchi has developed a particular directorial approach, which draws inspiration from both stage production and non-fiction cinema. Theater modes have been part of his practice since 2012 Privacy, a four-hour film he made in collaboration with students from ENBU Seminar, a drama school in Tokyo. Divided into three parts, the film follows the production and direction of a play, the central part describing its full performance. He then combined that with documentary sensibility, fueled by the trilogy of films he made with Kō Sakai about survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami – a catastrophe that resonates throughout the rest of his filmography, of Asako I & II To Drive my car. The experience was eye-opening for Hamaguchi, opening his eyes to the importance of attention and listening as the cornerstones of relationship building, especially between filmmakers and subjects. From then on, he integrated vast workshops into his creation process, starting with Happy Hour.

Drive my car tightly weaves a theatrical environment into its structure. Based on the short story Haruki Murakami of the same name, it follows YÅ«suke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an actor and director who gradually bonds with his distant driver (Tōko Miura). YÅ«suke’s theater’s idiosyncratic approach favors a multilingual script and lengthy reading sessions. The actors in the series he’s working on can’t understand each other, using Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, and Korean Sign Language; instead they focus on body language and sound, seeking to transcend verbal communication. Rightly so, the film delights in the word and its infinite nuances.

Of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021), dir. Ryūsuke Hamaguchi (image courtesy of Film Movement)

In the same way, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy concerns performance and role play. The film is a triptych, each story playing on themes of coincidence and imagination (“coincidence and imagination” being the translation of the original title, GÅ«zen to Sōzo). The dialogue is loaded and under pressure, ripe for speculation and guesswork. “Magic (or Something Less Assuring)”, the first story, follows an unexpected love triangle. It is followed by “Door Wide Open”, about a failed attempt at a seduction trap. The third part, “Once Again,” asks yet another question about how performance can allow people to connect with their true feelings. Two women meet by chance on an escalator, each mistaking the other for someone they once cherished but have since lost. If sincerity is difficult to grasp unless it comes at the expense of others (as seen in Passion and Asako), then pretend play becomes a viable option. Hamaguchi’s characters are often haunted by their past – a former lover, a national disaster, a deceased loved one. But these ghosts are not obstacles in his films. Instead, they linger until the characters are strong enough to let them go.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is currently playing in select theaters. Drive my car will perform at the San Diego Asian Film Festival (28 / 10-11 / 6) and open in select theaters on November 24. Happy Hour and Asako I & II can be broadcast on different platforms.

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