River: a two-minute time loop traps a group of hospitality workers in this breezy Japanese sci-fi

Director Yamaguchi Junta breathes new life into the time loop movie with an elegant, detailed workplace comedy that rewards repeat viewings.

Saori and Torigoe Yûki as Chino and Taku in River (2023)

Among its many qualities, one factor behind the staying power of Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993) is the relatability of its premise: feeling trapped in relentlessly mundane routines. Monotony can be even more stifling in the hospitality industries, where staff perform the same small talk ad nauseam. In director Yamaguchi Junta’s ingenious comedy River (2023), the Groundhog Day formula gets one of its most compelling reinventions – through both trapping the film’s characters at work and using an even more restrictive window of time.

The film puts us in the tranquil town of Kibune, where Mikoto (Fujitani Riko), an industrious waitress at the Fujiya Inn, has just taken a break beside the Kibune River. A handheld shot tracks her journey back into the inn to clean a room. Two minutes later, the film cuts to Mikoto back at the riverside spot. She and the colleague she’s just seen experience déjà vu as they repeat the same steps as before. And then Mikoto is transported back to the river yet again.

Everyone in town is affected by these recurring loops, retaining their memories and emotional states across each two-minute jump back in time. Dining friends have their bowls constantly replenished, while a writer’s words keep getting erased every two minutes. As they have no idea when this phenomenon will end, the inn staff amusingly try to keep their guests happy above all else. But the chaos of infinite hospitality quickly proves too punishing – workers and visitors team up to determine the cause of the loops and how to stop them.

A different kind of two-minute temporal anomaly drove Yamaguchi’s delightful debut feature Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020), a microbudget time-travel tale that, like River, was written by screenwriter and playwright Ueda Makoto. Dating back to the rollicking slacker-comedy Summer Time Machine Blues (a stage play in 2001, then a film in 2005), Ueda’s scripts have frequently explored the existential and humorous potential of time-travel narratives, in both live-action and animation (The Tatami Galaxy, 2010; Tatami Time Machine Blues, 2022).

As was the case in Yamaguchi and Ueda’s previous collaboration, River maintains a breezy tone throughout its runtime, even with the odd macabre detour reminiscent of the attempted-suicide montage in Groundhog Day. The best time-travel stories reward repeat viewings and to return to this meticulous film is to absorb the beautiful unbroken takes that comprise each two-minute repeat. River is a loop worth getting lost in.

River is available to stream from 12 February.