River (Fantastic Fest 2023)
Dir. Junta Yamaguchi (2023)
The staff at a hotel find themselves locked into a time loop, in which they are repeatedly forced to live the same two minutes over and over again.
Timeloop films can be difficult to parse, each detail needing to be handled perfectly at the risk of confusion and convolution taking away from its narrative. When they're done poorly, they break all immersion and can completely ruin any setup the filmmakers have established. When done right, however, they can be enthralling studies on the mysteries of time, humanity, and the values that the characters hold dear. River, the new film from Junta Yamaguchi and the Europe Kikaku Theater Troupe, handles it perfectly.
A group of hotel workers are stuck in a time loop, each trip lasting two minutes and then resetting back to Mikoto (Riko Fujitani) standing beside the river that runs along the grounds, each time the workers and their guests being aware they are repeating the same timeline. The inn is filled with interesting characters: the writer who no longer wishes to write and his demanding publicist, the business partners who are at odds over the potential dissolution of the business, and the chef who also happens to be a scientist. When it appears that Mikoto is the one behind the timeloop, the group attempts to force her to restart things while learning a little bit about themselves (and each other) along the way.
River is a brilliant, heartfelt comedy that surprised the complete hell out of me. The cast is utter perfection, each character exhibiting the quirky traits necessary to carry along what could have otherwise been a convoluted plot. The writing is on point, driving the story forward and exploring the gamut of emotions inherent in people who are aware that they're repeating the same two minutes over and over again. The direction is perfect, each two minutes being delivered in one take in an impressive feat of cinematography. And finally, the off-the-wall and peculiar scifi ending serving as the flawless explanation and delightfully unconventional conclusion.
Reading up on the folks that brought us this one makes me want to check out their other work. It's been a while since I've seen a film as touching as this one with such a unique and peculiar style, and I'm absolutely in love with what they've done. I tend to err on the side of the filmmakers, enjoying and sometimes even adoring films that really don't deserve the praise they receive from THR. This is not one of them. If you get a chance to give it a look, I highly, highly recommend it.
Who this movie is for: Scifi buffs, Timeloop fans, Well-wishers
Bottom line: I've enjoyed a lot of the films that I've seen from Fantastic Fest, and they've been far more hit than miss. I can honestly say, however, that this was my favorite film of the festival by far. It's an impeccably shot and performed film that hits its audience with sincerity and wit, an outstanding achievement that yearns to be seen. If it's playing anywhere near you, give it a look.