Fantastic Fest 2023: RIVER is a Hilarious and Heartfelt Trip Through a Time-Loop

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The team behind BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES deliver a followup with even more creativity, charm, and heart

Back in 2021, Junta Yamaguchi’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes delighted festival crowds. Simple in premise, it featured a medley of people within a tea shop, who found that their TV was showing images two minutes into their future. Well, Yamagucuchi and most of the team from Beyond are back with another temporal treat that leverages a (slightly) bigger budget into a film with more creativity, more scope, and if you can believe it, even more heart.

Set at an Inn in the remote village of Kibune, this is an idyllic setting, surrounded by tree-covered hills, with a river running through it. We meet Mikoto (a truly delightful turn from Riko Fujitani), who after receiving her work tasks for the morning, she steps outside, takes in the clear water flowing by, then heads back inside to begin. She wanders upstairs, makes small-talk with her boss as they clean up a room together, and suddenly, she’s back stood by the river. An initial sense of déjà vu is soon replaced by a communal acknowledgement that that are in a time loop, one that resets every two minutes, no matter what they do, planting each of them back in the same spot when it began. The staff start to get organized, working together to unravel the mystery behind this unusual event, picking up new information and setting in motion plans with each cycle. After they make sure all the guests are taken care of of course.

The film exudes warmth and wit, much of it coming from the the quirks of the characters, and the slow erosion of politeness as it all gets too much even for the staff of the inn. A melt-down over an ability to get a bottle of sake above a lukewarm temperature perfectly encapsulating this. Some guests are surprised, some in disbelief, some revel in the freedom these temporal shenanigans afford them. These time-loop trials take on the feeling of separate vignettes, some seem like side quests, fun tangents, all before the central mystery is solved. Others offer quieter moments to take a mental break from the situation or process emotion, while some take on more urgency as they get closer to figuring things out. Energy and pace comes with these loops opening up new areas of the village, or dropping in new characters to further help, or complicate the situation. Its just delightfully structured and beautifully wrought film-making.

As Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes was very much about learning to live in the moment, River takes on an almost fabelistic tone in it’s messaging, one of acceptance and looking to the future. Time is like a river, flowing forward, and so must we. All of these people are at this place with their own emotional weight and worries. From old friends reunited, to a a writer being pressured by his agent to meet a deadline, and even the emergence of longstanding conflict between the kitchen staff. But the focus is on Mikoto, who mourns the impending departure of Taku (Yuki Torigoe) as he is looking to leave behind Kibune and move to France to train as a chef. As the loops progress, together they come to deal with them, as both the cast and Yamaguchi unfurl their stories with authenticity, and an over-the-top energy that fittingly tilts toward the farcical. From one art form to another, one comparison to River would be The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask. Not just in terms of the temporal loop structure, or the innate charms of the people and place depicted. But, in terms of an adventure where a window of time is used to learn, reflect, and inform choices to direct future events to unfold for the better.

Makoto Ueda’s script is deep, considered, and flows beautifully. Each loop is packed with originality, charm, and hilarity. As tightly scripted as it is, the production itself is meticulously planned, but unfolds in a admirably fluid manner. Camerawork is immersive, following these people through the nooks and crannies of this little inn and surrounding village, revealing shortcuts and spots for new (mis)adventures. Every space is used to enrich the story and the adventure, all beautifully lit by cinematographer Kazunari Kawagoe. Loops are long takes, one rolling right into the next, but the edits that tie them together are pitch perfect, leveraged for maximum dramatic and comedic effect. Koji Takimoto’s playful score reinforces moments of frenetic behavior and eases us into the more contemplative lulls. River is the sum of many miraculous parts, and they all coalesce into something truly special.

River is more than just a measure of craft, it is affirming fare that reminds us how we may need to make peace with our present, but we can still take charge of our future. It enthralls and beguiles in equal measure, and it might be low budget but it’s undeniably high concept. A small movie with big ideas, and an exceptionally huge amount of heart. River is a film that you’d happily let run on forever.

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