Allow yourself to be swept up in director Junta Yamaguchi’s time loop comedy “River.” [Fantasia International Film Festival]

One of the best films I discovered during Fantasia 2021 was director Junta Yamaguchi’s feature-length directorial debut Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら), a time travel comedy presented entirely in one take. Now, two years later, Junta returns to Fantasia with his sophomore feature, River (リバー、流れないでよ), a time travel dramedy once more written by Makoto Ueda featuring many of the same faces from theatrical troupe Europe Kikaku. But don’t mistake River as a retread of Infinite Two Minutes. Rather than being a comedic exploration of the ways in which knowing the truth, even a few minutes ahead at a time, creates a mind-boggling battle between free will and predeterminism, River utilizes time loops to explore that feeling of wanting to exist in a moment and the unintended consequences that come from it.


Riko Fujitani as Mikoto in RIVER. Photo courtesy of Europe Kikaku.

Nestled within Kibune, Kyoto, is the inn Fujiya whose staff are every ready to assist with whatever you need, even in the middle of a quiet winter. However, on an ordinary day, something extraordinary happens: time resets. At first, it feels like déjà vu to the employees and guests of Fujiya, but, when it happens again and again, they start to realize they’re stuck in a constantly repeating and resetting time loop. To make matters worse, it keeps resetting every two minutes.

River 1

L-R: Yuki Torigoe as Taku, Riko Fujitani as Mikoto, Manami Honjomanami Honjo as Kimi, Munenori Nagano as Clerk, Haruki Nakagawa as Sugiyama, Yoshimasa Kondo as Obata, Masashi Suwa as Nomiya, Takashi Sumita as Head Chef, Gota Ishida as Kusumi, and Yoshifumi Sakai as Eiji in RIVER. Photo courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Time travel? Two minutes? You might feel like you’ve seen this story play out, but, as expected, Junta and Makoto utilize what the audiences thinks they know and play with it until the audience is able to just give themselves over. In this case, it begins with a shift in cinematography as the opening of the film is far more traditional in introducing the setting, the characters, and the circumstances before the loop begins. Unlike Two Minutes, which is entirely presented as a single long tracking shot, there’s no need for clever blocking in the initial stages as we explore the Fujiya grounds and meet the staff and guests, each given just a little bit of time for their motivations, connections, and needs to be highlighted in some way. Within the first 10 minutes, the game is afoot as Riko Fujitani’s hostess Mikoto takes a moment by the river, not realizing until then that she’s the anchor for the audience going forward. Everything we see, everyplace we go, follows Mikoto and only everything she engages with within those two minutes before time resets and a new lap (the term designated for each two-minute period) begins. Something which also differentiates River from other time loop tales is that the whole of Fujiya and an extended zone around Kibune are affected, which means that rather than having to reexplain things over and over within a short period, all the characters retain the information they possessed before the start of a new lap. This is a brilliant idea and its execution by the cast results in many hilarious moments as each one struggles (first to make sense of what’s happening, then in their frustration over how little can get done in that length of time), to grapple with their newfound reality. To help convey the confinement of time, once the loops begin, the camerawork shifts into a single-tracking shot, all jump cuts gone, the only perspective given being Mikoto’s. The smart thing here is that it enhances the constricted feeling of access and movement as we’re locked to only where she goes and what she does, allowing details of the various employees and guests to drip out over the course of the runtime.

With the cleverness of Two Minutes, there’s little surprise in the ways in which Kazunari Kawagoe’s (Summer Time Machine Blues) cinematography presents the story once within the loop. It’s worth pointing out that Kazunari is replacing Junta as cinematographer, yet there’s little difference in the overall look of the film. River possesses a great deal of beauty in its naturalness, a distinct lack of post-production color grading to heighten or lesson the wonder of Kibune in capturing this tale of scientific absurdity. By presenting the characters and the area as naturally as possible, Kazunari creates a sense of magical realism within the space, as though what’s happening is more supernatural in nature without losing a sense of authenticity of the location. The further into the mystery the audience goes, the higher the number of laps rises, the greater the tension amongst the people increases, the more the naturalness of Kibune matters. We need to believe, as do the characters, that what’s happening is an abnormality in an otherwise normal existence, so one shouldn’t lose hope or get lost in the perpetual loop.


Yuki Torigoe as Taku in RIVER. Photo courtesy of Europe Kikaku.

This is where River really grabs hold of the audience: what does it mean to be stuck in time? For some, it’s an opportunity to be freed from obligations due to a deadline that will never come. For others, it’s a lifetime of servitude as you’ll always be on the clock and never on break. To hold onto time, an object of affection will never grow older or leave your side, existing exactly as it is in that brief period. However, in a loop such as this, one is limited to the degree that something can get done, doomed to consider geography, travel time, and someone’s ability to comprehend what’s going on before anything can get done. To a degree, Makoto’s script is a bit “hell is other people,” but it never goes too far in that direction, succumbing to the darkness of such philosophy; instead, it dips its toe in it as a reminder that we make of our time what we want and that time is precious for a reason. Time is the one thing we’re always running out of, unable to make more no matter how badly we want to. Stopping time prevents someone from enjoying where they are, while the briefest of loops at least affords those who find themselves facing a terrible circumstance incremental portions of seconds, minutes, hours, and days in order to turn their perspective around. In a lovely way, it’s as though Makoto and Junta are reminding us that we need not wait for a loop to express ourselves.


Yoshifumi Sakai as Eiji in RIVER. Photo courtesy of Europe Kikaku.

River is a lovely film, filled with characters who make the tiny village of Kibune feel absolutely alive despite the cold of winter. Anchored by Riko’s positively charming performance, there’s not a false note in what is an otherwise absurd and silly circumstance. Though there are moments which one hopes will be explained that may just have more to do with circumstances regarding the shooting location more than narrative implications, one is nevertheless likely to be swept up in the loop along with Riko’s Mikoto and the rest. In that way, Junta delivers another marvelous story wherein time is merely a vehicle for which the audience can explore an aspect of themselves they may not otherwise inspect.

Screening during Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.

For more information, head either to the official Fantasia 2023 webpage or the River website.

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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