A few years ago, during the second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fantasia International Film Festival’s virtual programming gave us Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. This indie from Japanese director Junta Yamaguchi was a one-take time-loop movie which had one of the slickest gimmicks I’d ever seen. Cast of likable people, one small location, and webcams being the gateway to two minutes into the future. So cool and fun. Now, at the 2023 Fantasia Fest, Yamaguchi is back with River, a riff on the same two-minute time loop. Rather than a mobius strip like Beyond, this one is like Groundhog Day, two minutes at a time. It’s just as winning, funny, and adorable.
This time around, the action takes place in the gorgeous and serene Fujiya Inn located in the wintry valley of Kibune in Kyoto. Just as the last guests are preparing to leave for the season and the staff are ready to clean up, Mikoto (Riko Fijutani), one of the inn’s waitresses, takes a moment of self-reflection by the babbling river out back. What then transpires is the next two minutes continue to repeat, over and over and over, without any clear reason why. Each time it cycles back, Mikoto is back at the river. The staff of the inn have to figure out what’s going on, and how to break it to the confused patrons.
While the beginning of the movie has a very traditional feel, once the time loops begin, the camera goes handheld and follows the action, without a cut, until that two-minute loop finishes. It’s a thoroughly impressive feat which many of the cast, having been in Beyond, know very well. As the loops continue, the action expands to more places in and around the inn as the characters learn who is affected and who isn’t. With time essentially stagnated, unspoken hopes, dreams, desires, and frustrations come to the surface for all the different people.
At times River is laugh-out-loud hilarious, as the packed Fantasia audience will attest. The waitresses and proprietor, in traditional Japanese kimonos, have to shuffle as quickly as they can around the grounds of this inn to do whatever they need to do before the time resets. It’s especially funny how long it takes them to be frustrated about it. They’re so pleasant and amenable about the whole thing for awhile. As long as the guests are happy! Even the seemingly more upsetting moments become truly hysterical given the overall vibe and attitude of everyone involved. The cast is outstanding, top to bottom. So good, so funny.
Ultimately the story revolves around Mikoto whose almost-boyfriend Eiji (Yoshifumi Sakai), a trainee chef at the inn. He plans to move to France to study French cuisine and hasn’t told her. Arguing in two minute chunks is very silly, but eventually the two decide to make this loop last as long as it can. They try to run as far as they can get before it loops again. It’s truly one of the more adorable happenings in a movie in recent memory. It speaks to those last moments of youth before adulthood takes over. You try to retain the carefree until you physically can’t anymore.
I adored River. While I can’t say it’s better than Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, it’s a lovely companion piece. The romantic comedy angle, vaguely present in Beyond, comes to the fore in River. The earlier movie has a crime angle at a certain point which worked well enough. Here it’s all about character and I think, while the gimmick is less original, I prefer the character comedy over the sci-fiery.
Definitely seek out River as soon as you can, it’s one you’ll want to watch again and again. Perhaps on a loop.