This article is part of a series of reviews of films press screened online at the 2021 London Film Festival; previous entries in this series are available on the site.
Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
Once again, the upward trajectory of films screened at the festival continues into today’s films; these two I have particularly singled out as favourites. Berlin Silver Bear winner Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is the second film by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi screened at the festival, the previous one being Drive My Car, and though I appreciated much about that film, I consider this the more rewarding film of the two. Unlike Drive My Car, which was an adaptation from Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women collection, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an original anthology film, telling three unconnected stories, following the love lives of women ‘without men’ wrestling with their regrets and mistakes.
The first story in the triptych, “Magic (or something less assuring),” follows a young model, Meiko (Kotone Furukawa), who is discussing the wonderful first date her best friend (Hyunri) just had, when she realises the man she is talking about is in fact her own ex Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), whom she rushes off to confront at his office, unsure of her feelings. What follows is a dense Before Sunset-style conversation piece where the two go about probing and provoking one another about their true feelings and motives. It’s a labyrinthine tale of missed connections that sadly does resolve in a silly little fake-out involving some very awkward camerawork and it ends up feeling a touch juvenile, but it works as a primer for what’s to follow. One could almost define the movie’s three segments into high school, college and adulthood, with these immature twenty-somethings tossing their feelings around like a hacky-sack.
The second part, “Door Wide Open,” follows a plan by a vengeful student (Shouma Kai) who persuades his lover (Katsuki Mori) to honey-trap a professor (Kiyokiko Shibekawa) for flunking him. However, the incorruptible professor proves resistant to her advances, and in her seduction attempt, she finds herself revealing things about herself she hadn’t yet realised. It’s a dryly funny and erotic tragicomic piece, very neatly played, particularly by Mori with a lot of knowing sexual tension, but there’s also a sad, absurdist sting in the tail that puts the ‘fortune’ in the title and the ‘tragic’ in tragicomic.
The final, and best, segment, “Once Again,” starts out with a confusingly high concept premise, set in the aftermath of a global computer virus that leaks everyone’s secure data, triggering a reset to pre-internet society. It sounds like an apocalyptic setup to something like an episode of Black Mirror, but this quickly fades into the background of what is a very intimate and emotional story of two characters making the best of a misunderstanding, where a shy woman (Aoba Kawai) in town to attend her high-school reunion reconnects with an ex-lover (Fusako Urabe), only to find she isn’t who she expected.
Perhaps the global upset angle is a suggestive nod to the pandemic and its impact on social interactions, or perhaps the film isn’t that topical and it just became a necessary contrivance to make the characters lose touch with each other. Either way, it works as a deft illustration of how technologically dependent our modern relationships have become and how fragile our connections to each other are. What really defines and links us are the connections we build and which ones can be rebuilt, and “Once Again” celebrates that. It’s a frank, positive and uplifting note to end on that ties the films anxieties together in a more reassuring way than one might often have feared.
Each segment is better than the last and all three paint tender, rich portraits of dense webs of tangled emotions, where characters learn something about themselves through their interactions with others. It’s an intelligent, scholarly triptych of gentle and melancholic tragicomedies, possessed with great joy and great sadness and presented with measured maturity and some very endearing performances.
The first film of the festival that I came perilously close to throwing around words like “masterpiece” about was Bengali drama Rehana, the first Bengali film to compete in the ‘un certain regard’ section at Cannes. It’s a vivid, bitter and provocative exploration of social attitudes around sexual assault and women’s rights that’s so electrifyingly frustrating, it risks becoming one of the most crucial touchstones for cinematic discussions on the topic. Sadly the film does run somewhat off track in its closing minutes, seemingly running out of things to say, misplacing its own message and being unable to settle on an ending that feels honest and relevant. Nonetheless, it’s still a fantastic and incendiary piece that reaches a fever pitch of nightmarish intensity that’s rejuvenating and enthralling in its venom.
The title character Rehana (a spellbinding performance by Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a single mother and a strict teacher at a medical college who is working late one night when she sees a student (Afia Tabassum Born) leave the office of Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan), a male colleague, in tears, blouse torn. She immediately intuits what has happened but the girl implores her to let it lie and not say anything. Left in a moral conundrum about what to do, the incident begins to consume Rehana and erode her mental health, leading to a series of totally understandable but nonetheless very bad decisions.
What follows is a nightmare scenario where Rehana’s life comes crashing in on her in slow motion. Having hitherto balanced the strenuous demands of teaching and raising a young daughter (another astounding performance by Afia Jahin Jaima) with something approaching grace, her crusade to see justice done becomes just one more burden than she can carry and the levees begin to break. Beleaguered on all sides by angry students, her daughter’s judgmental teachers, the intractable administration and the guilty professor who maintains his ignorance, in her desire to see the truth come out, Rehana concocts a lie.
Many dramas dealing with feminist issues like to reassure audiences that with enough willpower, one woman can change the world, but Rehana is fearless enough to challenge that version of events, showing that without sufficient emotional and financial support or political savvy, a righteous cause will not be enough to win people to your side. Rehana is a brittle and unbending woman—she has to be, it’s how she earned her seat at the table—but it didn’t make her a popular guest and when it comes to fighting a cause, it’s popularity that pays.
Rehana might feel uneven compared to a tighter and more precise film like The Assistant, but it’s a chilling and provocative piece backed by pure adrenal rage. It’s sure to spark controversy as it’s unafraid to expose the frightening possibility that its heroine really is too weak to change anything, is too emotional and too impulsive, even too cold to raise her child—all the things misogynists like to say about women who refuse to stay silent and stay where they’d like to put them. That’s what elevates Rehana to the level of real horror: showing how rage, doubt and bitterness poison us all. Rehana makes mistakes and rash decisions, but the way things pan out, it’s hard to imagine she was ever in with a chance. The deck was always stacked against a woman fighting to make her workplace safe.