Fantasia Festival: River (2023)

Director: Junta Yamaguchi

Running Time: 86 Minutes

Starring: Riko Fujitani, Manami Honjô, Gôta Ishida, Yoshimasa Kondô, Shiori Kubo, Masahiro Kuroki, Kohei Morooka

Just two-years ago, Junta Yamaguchi made himself known to English speaking audiences with the excellent directorial debut, Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes. He returns with his long-awaited sophomore feature and, while it initially appears that he has not strayed far from his original feature, the truth is far from that as he has delivered another inventive take on a seemingly limiting idea.

The story begins at the long-established Fujita Inn, located within a wintry town in Kyoto's northern mountains. Among the guests are a pair of old friends momentarily reconnecting, a writer confused about why his protagonist's wife had to die, and the writer's publicist enjoying a hot bath. As the employees prepare for the oncoming winter, established among them is waitress Mikoto (Riko Fujitani) going about her work day, and her crush Taku (Yûki Torigoe), a young cook napping on his break.

After Mikoto momentarily stares into the nearby river, a single-take unfolds as she cleans up after guests and shares news with her employees. After two minutes, the previous scene restarts with Mikoto staring into the river. Despite brushing off the circumstances as deja vu, there is clear confusion on the character's faces and hesitation in their voices as they are unnerved by the experienced familiarity. As the sake does not warm up, dishes become unwashed, and bowls repeatedly fill up with food, it dawns on the people that time is looping every two-minutes.

Grappling with a fantastical scenario, the employees first actions are to stick to their roles and not let themselves be stopped from looking after the guests. As they query how the time loop will affect the day's wages, it becomes clear they view the unfathomable events as a minor disruption. Screenwriter Makoto Ueda makes fun use of the premise which sees characters embrace matters, like a writer hoping the loop lasts a few days once he realises his deadline will not come, while they also adapt to the newfound difficulties, like keeping a publisher in the bath due to his naked state.

Key to the fantastical concept is the glorious sense of humour, as repeated attempts to explain the situation are interrupted or derailed to comedic effect, while a highlight is a sudden enquiry regarding what happens if someone uses the toilet. Central to it all is the energetic cast, exceptionally bringing alive the character beats amidst the time loop and committing to the practical challenges. The craft is magnificently on show as each time loop is conveyed through a single-take, cleverly utilizing this method to differentiate each loop of the situation, while containing fun ideas within the confined segments such as an elaborate sequence which moves into a car.

As good as the imaginative premise is, what truly makes it work is the multi-faceted portrayals of the characters in the middle of things. While time may loop, the emotional responses carry over which leaves the disagreements, falling outs, and destructive actions to resonate. Peaceful Kibune grows dark as matters weigh on people, each enduring their own troubles. As they face truths regarding their own feelings, it allows them to gain new perspectives on life and work towards reviving the lovely place they recognise. It soon becomes clear what must be done, and it is a joyous sight to witness everyone working together to achieve their goal. Yamaguchi has delivered another winner, transforming gentle slice of life fare into an ingeniously crafted tale about not taking things for granted and embracing the quiet moments.

River made its North American Premiere at Fantasia Festival 2023