Credit: Fantasia International Film Festival
by Sean Gilman Featured Film

River — Yamaguchi Junta [Fantasia Fest ’23 Review]

August 14, 2023

Director Yamaguchi Junta’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes was a delightful no-budget time travel comedy that hit the scene a couple of years ago, delighting audiences with its audaciously simple premise — a man discovers his computer monitor is linked to another downstairs which displays events that will take place exactly two minutes into the future — built up nonetheless in ingenious ways, using only a handful of actors. Yamaguchi, once again united with writer Ueda Makoto (The Tatami Galaxy; Night is Short, Walk on Girl), returns this summer with River, yet another two-minute temporal anomaly, on an ever so slightly larger scale, but with equally delightful results.

This time, it’s a time loop film: workers and residents of a traditional Japanese hotel find that their world resets itself every two minutes. Unlike in Mondays, which played at this year’s Japan Cuts, or other time loop narratives — such as the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “Cause and Effect” or ”Time Squared,” the latter of which gave Orbital the essential sample, “There is the theory of the Möbius — a twist in the fabric of space, where time becomes a loop” — everyone is quite aware of what is happening right from the beginning. The drama, then, comes from watching the characters try to figure out what has caused the loop, and what they can do to fix it. Yamaguchi films every two-minute section in continuous takes, probably shot on a telephone or some similarly lo-fi digital camera, like the long takes in Beyond. A probable concession to the realities of low-budget filmmaking, but adding an especially surreal edge to the looping, is that the weather outside is always changing: about to snow in one scene, dry and sunny the next, snow covering the ground after that. Time isn’t just repeating — the residents of the hotel have become disconnected from the space around them as well.

Leading us through it all are the workers, as one by one they get together and try to reassure the patrons that what is happening is real and that they will find a solution eventually. This provides the film’s funniest moments, as these unflappable women explain to panicking vacationers how delightful it is to be stuck in a time loop (they can drink without getting a hangover, eat without gaining weight!), while wondering if they’ll get paid overtime for all these extra minutes they have to work. Our primary character is Mikoto, played with resolute charm by Fujitani Riko (one of the stars of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes). It turns out that she has a crush on one of the kitchen staff, and, learning he plans to go away to Paris to learn the art of French cuisine, has made a hasty wish to the local river god to stop time. This is the first theory as to why the time loop started, and it gives everyone else the opportunity to blame — and then forgive — her, but also lends the young couple an opportunity to spend some precious time together to see what kind of relationship they could actually have (time that otherwise wouldn’t be possible given work requirements). The cause turns out to be something else entirely, which pads out River’s running time (a bit longer than Beyond’s 70 minutes), but also shows us how many people really do wish time could slow down or stop for a while. Though of course, when it actually does, their first instinct is to panic or fight or shoot themselves. Yamaguchi’s final product is exactly as kooky and homemade as it should be.

Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 4.