Fantasia 2023: River — It’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Again

From Junta Yamaguchi, the director of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2021), comes another time loop scenario. Sequels tend to repeat themselves. You want to give an audience who loves your movie another movie they will love and that process does not have to be shameful. Iteration can be productive. In the right kind of follow-up, using the original concepts as a building block to layer and explore the same themes in a new way is one way you can create a constructive body of work. That’s how it goes with River, which takes the two-minute premise and runs with it in a new direction.

Every two minutes we end up right back in the same place, right beside a calm river set against a picturesque Japanese inn. We follow Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), who helps keep the guests happy here, as she resets at the riverbank like clockwork. The fun problem with the two-minute loop is that in many of the loops, characters are simply trying to gather and relay information as quickly as they can before — snap — and we’re back by the river, where Mikoto gives an affirmative nod of her head and sets out on her next planned course of action.

The mystery here, as it so often is, is in working out why these loops are happening. Is it because of an author staying in the inn who wanted to abandon all of his deadlines and has finally found joy in having every two minutes available for him to just experience life? Is it Mikoto herself, who is having an affair with a chef in the inn’s kitchen, and just wants to suspend time so he could stay? She prayed to the River gods that he would, after all.

What Junta Yamaguchi understands is that everyone will approach this situation differently and unpredictably. There are lovely small ideas: initially, a man stuck in the loop is resting and listening to music, not even realizing his life and the music is on repeat. There’s the author who makes so much fun out of escaping his obligations. A hunter who goes and shoots himself just to see what happens. A man is stuck in the shower and simply never has enough time to even dry off and get dressed. There’s car theft, bottomless meals, attempted romances, community gatherings, and attempts to outrun the circle of the loop’s control. Always, Yamaguchi stays with the constructed logic and does not break his own narrative rules.

It’s hard to shoot a reoccurring movie like this in the dead of winter. It starts with snow spread all around the sides of the river. There are sequences where it’s snowing, ones where everything has dried up, and ones where it seems to be raining. This can be viewed as a series-breaking chain of events, as the film moves between different climates in the same environment and supposed two-minute block of time but it also creates an interesting potentiality: that each constructed two-minute run is a different timeline wherein each one has a unique set of circumstances and possible outcomes.

The way it goes every time is that the movie pulls the frame to a good cut-away, then we hard cut back to the riverbank: Mikoto nods and usually, she goes up the stairs, and the camera follows angled below her, and then onto the next event. When something else happens, the movie is good about telling a lot of implicit and baked-in stories about the characters just in how it frames them and continues recentering the progression of the ensemble’s plight. Eventually, the realities of Mikoto’s relationships shift, and the camera’s treatment of her instinctively changes. After watching her ascend the stairs the same way over and over, the camera instead is now placed over her head, shooting down at her, presenting disorientation and creating new differences in what these two minutes mean against the history of two minutes we’ve witnessed before them. River has a grabbag of sharp technical tricks like this that keep reinventing the way the time-loop works but also honoring our understanding of it by always progressing how we move through time and what characters have already learned about each other and their situations.

Yamaguchi strikes just the right chord again: his time loops are immaculate and thoughtfully constructed. We never lose track of what a large ensemble or doing or how their individual sub-stories are progressing despite such a frantic and time-limited pacing applied over and over again in the story. The film never betrays its premise or the time loop itself. River finds a bit less novelty than Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes did, by deconstructing a meta-series of sci-fi repetitions across technologies, there is a totally different exploration here. There is a feeling the director is charged by these materials and that there is, at the very least, room for one more return to the concept, or to take on his next high-concept drama. Just as we reviewed his last movie two years ago at this same festival with the same results, like clockwork, we’ll keep watching whatever Yamaguchi makes — he’s becoming a very entertaining director.


Leave a Reply