So Much Depends Upon an Open Door

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021)

Film Movement

I never made good use of my professors’ office hours. I would come equipped with questions I knew no one had asked before, jokes I knew would kill. I was always sure that I could charm them into bumping my half-baked flash fiction up a letter grade. Every time I crossed the threshold into the office, though, I clammed up. The desk sat between my professor and me like an ocean: a pillar of knowledge and accolades on one side; on the other, a boy getting sweaty enough to leave an ass print on the leather chair. There was too clear a delineation of status for even my warmest teachers to bridge. Within minutes of each visit, I’d stumble over my words and start rambling until the professor had to strain to hide the pity on their face. And God forbid the door was left open. If there was even a whiff of a chance of being overheard, I’d be out of their office before I could explain why I showed up in the first place.

My own scholastic cowardice is part of what keeps me in such awe of the centerpiece scene of “Door Wide Open,” the second episode of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2021 triptych Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. It features Segawa, a humble if not austere professor, hot off of winning a prestigious award for his latest novel. He’s greeted in his office by his former student, Nao, who’s arrived to congratulate him on the win. You get the sense that Segawa’s been fielding this kind of visit a lot since his name hit the news, but he remembers Nao—she’s a bit older than her classmates, she asked thoughtful questions—and welcomes her in to chat. Things seem normal at first, but he senses something’s up when Nao insists that he sign a specific passage within her copy of his book. Segawa’s posture changes, caution colors his tone. Emboldened, Nao asks a few questions before proceeding to read the passage, introducing one of the most stunning embedded narratives I’ve seen on film.

The text is singular, strange, and astoundingly horny (think if Haruki Murakami took a stab at Portnoy’s Complaint). If there was any doubt before, it’s become clear that Nao has visited Segawa’s office to seduce him. The reading eats several minutes of screen time. The room becomes airless. Segawa doesn’t emote much, making every time he shifts in his chair or clears his throat into an event, a tell that the reading is affecting him deeply. Nao gets more confident in her performance; at one point, she closes the office door for privacy from a passing group of students without looking up from the novel. The passage approaches its climax, and finally—finally—Segawa makes a move. He leaves his chair to walk toward Nao with an intimately careful gait. She keeps reading with the kind of barely suppressed smile of someone who knows they’re getting away with it. When Segawa can’t get any closer to Nao, he extends his hand. Instead of reaching for Nao, though, he reaches past her to reopen the door. Chatter from passing students floods back into the office; Nao’s shoulders sink. It’s one of the most crushing onscreen rejections I’ve seen. Right when it seems that the boundaries of status that separate teacher and student will break, they rear their heads more forcefully than ever.

All three episodes of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy take care to determine what constitutes and calculates the distance between two people, to examine the shapes that relationships can take. Sometimes, those shapes are literal—a love triangle in the case of the first episode—while others are more abstract, with softer lines and obtuse angles in the case of the third. “Door Wide Open” is perhaps the most explicit in its pursuit of what separates one person from another. It begins with a teacher prepping a class for discussion with a big question: “What makes a person feel different?” A student volunteers a simple answer: “honorifics,” the titles and statuses we bestow upon one another, arbitrary or not. It’s a decent response, one that’s quickly affirmed when the class is interrupted by shouting from an office across the hall. The office belongs to Professor Segawa, the shouting to a student named Sasaki. The latter has prostrated himself on Segawa’s floor, begging him to reverse a failing grade. Segawa won’t budge, neither to Sasaki pleading for another chance nor the teacher from across the hall offering to close Segawa’s door. When the teacher suggests that the incident might look like harassment, Segawa remains resolute: “More so with the door closed,” he replies. He’s well aware of how honorifics can make someone feel different—and the consequences those differences reap. It makes his rejection of Nao as informed as it is devastating.

It’s an interesting time for Hamaguchi to examine status. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is one of two movies the director released in 2021. The other, Drive My Car, is enjoying meteoric praise: it topped countless critics’ best-of-year lists (even Obama placed it at the top of his annual, suspiciously hip dispatch) and received four Oscar noms—including Best Picture, no small feat for a three-hour foreign-language slow-burn about grief and Anton Chekov. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was well reviewed, but it’s destined to live in Drive My Car’s shadow. Almost everything about the triptych feels smaller than its sibling: its scale, its scope, its runtime. Even its metatextual elements carry less baggage. Drive My Car sets its focus on an adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, a text so historically momentous it’s a miracle Hamaguchi was able to wring anything new from it, let alone something brilliant. But that’s not to say that Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is a lesser work. Its own fiction-within-fiction is written specifically for “Door Wide Open,” and while it may seem a little less weighty than Uncle Vanya on paper, its inclusion and execution are just as precise. A lot of people will see Drive My Car, which is wonderful; it’s a singular piece of art, and that it’s enjoying such a spotlight is encouraging for stories of a similar caliber. But it’s a shame to think that Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy might be lost in the shuffle. Status might be intangible, but its implications are real. It drops buoys of causality for life to flow against and in between.

Attention to causality is what makes the scene between Nao and Professor Segawa such an effective narrative payoff. Sasaki, the student who begs Segawa for another chance, has been having a fling with Nao. It’s his idea for Nao to seduce Professor Segawa, to “honey trap” him and create a scandal as payback for his failing grade. Nao is older than Sasaki, a mother and a wife who knows better than to indulge some cute freshman’s revenge fantasy. Still, she’s been feeling ostracized from her younger classmates, who exclude her from summer plans and group texts, and Sasaki is a bridge to her peers that she doesn’t want to lose. She’s also read—and been turned on by—Segawa’s novel. When she sets out to lure the professor, it’s as much to prove to herself that she can do it and lend credence to her own curiosities as it is to appease Sasaki. Each player in “Door Wide Open” is endowed with enough agency to propel one scene into another; Sasaki’s thirst for revenge and Nao’s pursuit of self-worth serve as the perfect inverse of Professor Segawa’s self-awareness and open-door policy. If nothing else, Ryusuke Hamaguchi is an economic writer. His stories are patient, often quite long, but there isn’t an ounce of fat around one decision or event or conversation. The narrative of “Door Wide Open” is so tightly wound that all Hamaguchi needs to do is let Nao read an erotic story for the whole thing to pay off.

The scene doesn’t end with Professor Segawa opening his office door, though. He doesn’t ask Nao to stop reading, and with due credit to her character, she finishes the passage while students fill the hallways outside. It’s not the outcome she’d hoped for, but it isn’t an outright rejection, either. Nao proves her resilience by staying in the office and asking the professor why he writes like “that” (i.e., a story about a woman shaving a man’s testicles and measuring them with her mouth). The professor answers with another layer of distinctly Hamaguchian metatext. He says that sort of language appeals to a certain type of reader, and placing it at the center of his novel might compel that reader to stick around until the end of the story. The passage also appears at the approximate center of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy’s runtime, lending Segawa’s explanation a double meaning. Such a bald sentiment could be read as a proactive defense toward critics, but it’s executed with enough clarity and self-awareness to function as a well-deserved victory lap. Hamaguchi knows that the scene you just watched is good; you saw the trick, now here’s the man behind the curtain.

As powerful as status can be, it remains malleable. Jobs are terminated, batons are passed, star power fades. Nao’s reading may not have worked as a method of seduction, but it does introduce a vulnerability into the office that erodes the divide between teacher and student. The conversation shifts, slowly, from the erotic toward perceptions of self-worth. Nao doubts her willpower; she worries about her affairs with men like Sasaki and the threat they pose to her family. When she admits that she’s been recording the conversation, that she’s here to try and create a scandal, Professor Segawa assumes that it’s because she hates him. He’s distinguished, sure, but his sense of his own worth may be as tenuous as Nao’s.

Hamaguchi has cited Cassavetes as an influence, and the connection makes sense; both filmmakers have produced aggressively conversational filmographies that tread in brutal feelings borne from hazardous relationships. Where Cassavetes favored handheld cinematography and gritty 16mm, though, Hamaguchi prefers stillness. His films are quiet and crisp, his colors muted, and his camera rarely moving. Much of the triptych is traditionally shot and framed, which makes the camera’s few deviations feel electric. Sometimes, it’s a quick zoom on a sobbing face; other times, a slow pan from a city to a flowering tree. In “Door Wide Open,” Hamaguchi waits until the lines drawn by status are erased to switch from a conventionally shot conversation to direct addresses to the camera. Segawa tells Nao—tells us—that she mustn’t allow herself to be measured by society’s ruler, that her worth is derived from within. The advice might feel trite if the camera weren’t staring Segawa directly in the face; he’s disarmingly sincere, and his eyes ache with the impossible task of helping the human in front of him. Nao speaks directly to the lens, too, nakedly vulnerable, and says what anyone might: “Easy for you to say.” Segawa admits that yes, it’s easy to dole out feel-good advice after making national news for a literary prize. But then again, that status is what brought Nao to his office in the first place. The camera cuts back to a conventional shot, just two people talking in an office, but the spell remains unbroken.

A perfect scene can be as much of a burden as it is a blessing, and it’s hard to follow something as thrilling and cathartic as Segawa and Nao’s conversation (no band ever wants to play after the headliner). “Door Wide Open” ends on a good punchline—Nao agrees to send her recording to Segawa instead of the media but accidentally lists the address of a school administrator in her email—but it’s followed by a coda featuring Nao and Sasaki that’s rendered forgettable by the strength of the preceding scenes. Still, the episode carries enough emotional resonance to make it stand as Wheel and Fortune and Fantasy’s highlight. Within a single scene, we see the idea of status and honorifics deconstructed, examined, and constructed again, all before and after a piece of metafiction strong enough to stand on its own; Hamaguchi has a promising literary career should he ever get bored with making movies. What’s truly impressive about this scene, though, is that none of its mechanics ever distract from how exciting it is, how bizarrely erotic its fiction reads or the weight of the questions it asks about who we are and what we’re worth. “Door Wide Open” is patient enough to brush the edge of mumblecore and as salacious as a daytime soap. If there’s another filmmaker who can sell the consequence of an open door as convincingly as Hamaguchi, I’d love to see their work.