Movies · Reviews

‘River’ Is a Hilarious and Sweet Palate Cleanser for the Soul [Fantasia 2023]

No joke, this Japanese Indie might just be the best and most satisfying film of the year.
By  · Published on July 30th, 2023

One of 2020/2021’s best films — and arguably one of the decade’s best science-fiction films — is Junta Yamaguchi‘s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (my review). A comedic mindbender, the film’s ingenious structure sees characters caught in a two-minute time loop resulting in a warm, intellectually stimulating, and very funny “time travel” romp. It’s an incredible feat, and now two years later Yamaguchi has returned with a fresh take on a similar setup. Any worry that a second go-round might feel stale is immediately squashed as the mystery, character interaction, and unstoppable joy of River spill off the screen and into the desperately gaping hole that is your heart.

Winter is approaching, and the staff and guests of a small inn in the mountain village of Kibune are readying themselves for an uncertain future. Mikoto (Riko Fujitani) stands in reflection by a gently moving river behind the inn before going about her work, but two minutes later she’s suddenly back at the water’s edge. Confused, thinking it’s perhaps some extreme form of deja vu, she hurriedly returns to work — only to reappear by the river two minutes later. Others are experiencing the same phenomena as time resets even as their memories and awareness continues. Panic, wonder, excitement, and more swirl through the group as they attempt to find the source of the time looping and hope for a way to stop it.

As with Yamaguchi’s previous film, River is a setup and structure that really shouldn’t work. Characters resetting every two minutes would grow repetitive in lesser hands, but like the water rolling serenely past the inn, the film immediately finds a natural flow and rhythm. Incredibly sharp writing, pitch perfect performances by the entire ensemble, and the overwhelming feeling that experiencing this movie is the loveliest gift you’ve likely gotten in years, all come together into something utterly beautiful and soothing.

The film’s central mystery, what’s causing the time loop, is given the most delightful, surprising, and funny reveal, but numerous moments pop throughout keeping both viewers and characters unsure what to expect. Small beats bring big laughs or thought-provoking turns as characters struggle with their predicaments from the minor to the major. Never-ending rice bowls, a shampooed head they can’t get rinsed, and saki that won’t heat up give way to bigger concerns involving failed businesses, questions of mortality, and the uncertainties of love.

No matter the topic, though, none of it drags the film’s perfectly paced momentum down. River sees Yamaguchi and returning writer Makoto Ueda maintaining a brisk pace kept alive through active camerawork and characters rushing about to fill each two-minute stretch learning as much as they possibly can about the situation. Dialogue is quick and punchy, and when they’re not physically on the move it’s their words, theories, and ideas that are flying about. Laughs are frequent, but it’s doubly impressive that the film layers the quick-paced antics with surprising amounts of heart and emotion too. We’re caught up in the mystery, but we’re just as enamored by and attached to these people’s lives.

The ensemble sees some familiar faces from Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes as well as newcomers, and all of them are operating on the exact right tone and frequency that River demands. It’s a comedy, and in addition to delivering spot on comic timing the cast offers up a masterclass in the peculiarly Japanese approach to comedic performances. They go big at times in their reactions and exclamations, but there’s a sincerity behind it all that prevents it from ever feeling buffoonish or overly broad. You’re sucked so completely into their time loop adventure that every moment feels natural and right, and you’re equally locked in to each character’s situation.

Part of River‘s ingenious structure is allowing almost every character to have some dilemma of sorts, some concern that this break in time gives them the chance to ponder. Each is satisfying in its own way, and all of finds the ideal setting in this inn’s calming natural locale. A real inn in Kibune — a destination you’ll immediately add to your travel wish list upon the film’s conclusion — it’s an area that feels wholly at home with an unnaturally induced pause. A gentle snow comes and goes, and the river continues to run serenely by, and the high energy concerns soon find the value in peace, calm, and kindness.

It’s not an unintentional truth here that troubles are often better solved through sharing, communication, and collective effort, and while that’s not a new lesson for any of us it’s one we can always stand to be reminded of. River does just that in the form of a sci-fi/comedy infused as much with brains as it is with heart. It’s not often a film has you smiling for almost the entirety of its running time, but Yamaguchi and friends have accomplished that feat for a second time in a row. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start wishing for an eighty-six minute time loop so I can watch this beautiful treasure of a film for the first time all over again.

Follow all of our Fantasia Fest 2023 coverage here.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.