Fantastic Fest Review: River
Japanese sci fi dramedy treads lightly and charmingly
By Richard Whittaker,
10:00AM, Tue. Oct. 3, 2023
There's a constant to the films of Junta Yamaguchi. No, it's not his use of brief glitches in time. It's the soft pleasantness and charming intimacy of his sci fi-tinged delights.
That said, time travel of sorts is a factor in both his 2001 feature debut Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes and his follow up, River, which received its U.S. premiere last week at Fantastic Fest.
Both are also collaborations with the Europe Kikaku Group theatrical troupe, with a script by Penguin Highway and The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl writer Makoto Ueda (who continued the temporal shift antics with 2022 anime series Tatami Time Machine Blues, a remake of sorts of his 2005 feature debut, Summer Time Machine Blues).
However, what would superficially bind them closest together would be the duration of the chrononautical slip. Two minutes, precisely. In Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, a restaurateur and his clients are befuddled by a video monitor seemingly receiving broadcasts from 120 seconds into the future. In River, it's a time loop, as the staff and guests at a rural ryokan find themselves repeating the same two minutes over and again. However, they all remember that they've done this before, and that it always starts the same way: with one of the servants, Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), stood by the Kibune River, downstream from the Kifune Shrine where the boat of the goddess Tamayori-hime is said to be buried.
As with the prior film, two minutes is not enough time to actually solve a problem, but it's enough time to work out the next step. That time limit has clearly fascinated Yamaguchi and Ueda enough to revisit it, but in no sense is this an act of repetition. If anything, it's a way to take the concept in a polar opposite direction. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes was one single take: River, by contrast, is a series of interlocking vignettes that build to a narrative.
And in that narrative there's a subtle commentary on how quickly time runs out. There's the author and his publisher who are running into a deadline for his next book. The two old friends who think that one lunch can fix their problems. And, of course, Mikoto has issues of her own, the kind that may have led her to ask a goddess to intervene and allow her to hold on to this one moment for a little longer.
Yamaguchi's greatest achievement is that, even when there's a dabble in darkness, there's a sense of hapless charm and the enchanting idea that, if you put enough two minutes together, you can solve any problem. As the staff and guests all come together to find a solution to their looping problem, they only become even more endearing. Even the smallest parts are filled with a certain optimistic joy, and the informed ease of performance that only comes with an ensemble that knows and understands each other.
If River has a flaw, it's in a resolution that almost feels like Ueda didn't quite know how to move on to the 121st second, and so relies on an overly convenient deus ex machina. But somehow the heartwarming growth of the ryokan's ragtag and rambunctious residents and employees, across conversations, chase sequences, and even lyrical romance, means that River never once feels tedious. If anything, you'll just want to spend more time in the moment with them.