Fantasia Film Festival 2023 review: River

Still image from River.
Still image from River. Pic credit: Courtesy of Fantasia

River is a new addition to the time-loop genre. However, unlike the typical scenario where only one person remains in a “Groundhog Day” story, in this case, an entire hotel is affected.

The movie playing at Fantasia is like a clever blend of Groundhog Day meets The White Lotus.

The movie’s plot revolves around a group of characters caught in a time loop, and as spectators, we witness their unpredictable and hilarious conduct in real-time.

River offers a refreshing take on a genre that can often feel overdone. Despite the potential for time-loop narrative fatigue, director Junta Yamaguchi infuses the Ground Hog style approach with new inspiration.

The movie revolves around Mikoto (played by Riko Fujitani), a waitress at a charming Japanese inn beside the Kibune River.

The screenplay structures itself like a well-designed stageplay, with every character having their rotation of stories, both inside and outside the inn, that are essential to the overall experience. The movie’s setting remains constant, contributing to its stageplay-like feel as events unfold repeatedly.

Who hit the reset button?

The inn is occupied by various individuals, including a novelist, two businesspeople, a clerk, and others. During their stay, a strange phenomenon occurs where time rewinds every two minutes, bringing them back to the same starting point. Mikoto consistently finds herself by the Kibune River at the beginning of each reset.

River creates an immersive experience for the viewer through its filming techniques. Director Yamaguchi uses one-take sequences that last the entire loop to make the audience feel like they are part of the action.

Although it’s unclear how these sequences were filmed, it seems like they required a lot of rehearsal and dedication, which is evident in the two-minute-long takes. The viewer will greatly appreciate the effort.

The writing is intriguing because it explores the impact of a situation on multiple characters rather than just one. Makoto Ueda’s screenplay realistically depicts how people would react if faced with such an event.

Waitstaff and clerks move about the inn, reassuring customers to remain composed and describing the oddity of the situation. Though some characters may humorously lose their composure, most continue their lives while waiting for the problem to resolve itself.

During these moments, River can be pretty funny. After the clock resets, Mikoto and their colleagues have only a two-minute window to address any issues or clarify information before they are returned to their original positions. The frustration of having to reconnect with team members in different rooms just to have a simple conversation before the process starts all over again is comically relatable.

Mikoto, portrayed by Riko Fujitani, is a delightful and infectious caretaker at the inn. Throughout the movie, Fujitani’s character remains at the story’s center, humorously managing the chaos around her. Her performance perfectly matches the film’s tone, as she effortlessly blends sincerity and comedy, depending on the situation.

The screenplay for River is genuinely exceptional. Every character is portrayed vividly and realistically, with each one receiving a moment to shine on paper.

For instance, two men who are initially friendly with each other share a rice meal in their room. However, when the 2-minute time-loops start, their past grudges are hilariously exposed. Another example is a man trapped in the shower. Throughout the story, he remains worried about his client despite being covered in shampoo and wearing only a towel throughout the resetting chaos.

River is expertly written and delightful

The level of detail in this comedic time-loop scenario is remarkable. The narrative is both straightforward and intricate, but it never takes itself too seriously. It’s almost like someone attempted to create a mashup of Tenet and The Office. The timeline mechanics are expertly intertwined, but the result is simply delightful.

River is a highly entertaining movie with a time-loop structure that will surely delight. Director Junta Yamaguchi has once again delivered a remarkable work of sci-fi. This film is a delightful blend of Groundhog Day and The White Lotus, with meticulous attention to detail that makes it a playful and enjoyable watch.

Yamaguchi’s previous film, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, was an impressive display of his talent, and River proves that he is not a one-hit-wonder.

Be sure to read our Part 1 and Part 2 most anticipated films at Fantasia, our reviews of Shin Kamen Rider and Stay Online, and our reviews of Lovely, Dark, and Deep, and Blackout. Stay tuned for more Fantasia Film Fest reviews at Monsters and Critics.

Fantasia Film Festival continues until August 9.

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