Mayhem Film Festival 2023: River

Continuing our guide to the Nottingham festival’s highlights with a look at the most charming piece of time slip sci-fi that you’ll ever see.

The problem facing horror film festivals – or those identified as such – is where exactly do they draw the line, given the immediately reductive nature of the beast? By which I mean – at what point does something move far enough away from our ideas of ‘horror’ to not only seem out of place but also to potentially alienate the audience? ‘Horror’ is an increasingly broad church these days and can probably accommodate violent action, hard science fiction, weird fantasy and the rest – but there seems to be the general requirement that a film be dark, scary, creepy, intense, outrageous or extreme. Push beyond that and you are entering unknown territory.

The Mayhem Film Festival wisely dropped the ‘horror’ from their name several years ago and so have a touch more leeway than some of their rivals, but there is still perhaps a certain audience expectation – at least for parts of the audience. Is there room for gentle tweeness in amongst the mayhem? River might be the point of no return, a stage where the festival opens itself up to anything and everything. It might well be the film of the festival – time will tell (I’m writing this a week before and so there is the slight possibility that the film will be bettered) but I really hope that this film speaks to audiences in the way it spoke to me. In short, and a spoiler for the review ahead – I absolutely adored this film.

River is a sort of follow-up – not quite a sequel, more a fellow (time) traveller – to director Junta Yamaguchi’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes in that it has a similar central premise – a two-minute time slip, here something that affects everyone in a traditional Japanese inn that sits alongside a river in Kibune, Kyoto. For reasons unknown, everyone finds themselves reliving the same two minutes again and again. At first, no one knows what is happening, but while time repeats, their individual lives go on – everyone retains the memory of what has just happened as they slowly begin to realise what is happening, they start to make plans to work out why – as well as using the constantly repeating time as a break in the narrative of life, giving them a welcome break from linear existence and the ability to have a literal time-out. For a writer stuck with a difficult story and a looming deadline, it is a welcome pause from pressure. For old friends having an awkward reunion, it is a chance to thrash out old resentments and move beyond them. For a young couple, it is the opportunity to deal with a situation that is taking them away from each other. I won’t say more because while this is not a film where spoilers really matter that much, the fun is in the discovery of the characters and their lives.

There is the potential here for the film to become very hard work, and during the first ten minutes or so I had the sinking feeling that this was exactly what we had in store – a constant stream of repetition that might allow for some fancy filmmaking but would not be an especially engaging experience. But as each character begins to understand what is happening, it becomes fascinating to see how the film allows them to move forward and investigate, sort out their personal problems and deal with misunderstandings about who might be to blame for the events while then returning to the same time and place that they started in after two minutes. We get to share their frustrations and confusion, the misdirection and frustration at having to move things forward in a short period of time before they all end up back where they started.

It’s essentially a multi-person Groundhog Day but with less cynicism and more joy, the characters each taking something from their situation. At one point, the film looks as though it is heading in a dark direction with repeating murder, suicide and accusation – but this is a fleeting moment and perhaps speaks volumes about the hopeful nature of the film that everyone involved quickly learns to deal with their confusion, anger and panic in more civilised, non-violent ways. This is not a film that wants to bombard you with a heavy message or a bleak outlook – rather, it allows you to get to know the characters and sympathise with them, delighting in their innovative methods of cooperation as they seek out the ultimate cause of the time loop (I won’t reveal the details here, but even the resolution is a hymn to working together, avoiding blame and the hope that the future will be a better place).

Once again featuring Yamaguchi’s Kikaku theatre troupe, the film benefits from a cast that is used to each other and to working in real time, single location scenarios. Filmed using extensive single shots – not to the point where it becomes a contrived and noticeable technique but rather as the most obvious and naturalistic way of emphasising the limited time available to the protagonists in each moment – the movie has the feel of slow cinema, even though it is actually anything but; after all, a lot has to be crammed into each two-minute sequence. But the lack of incident, the repetition, the traditional location and the old-fashioned feel that permeates throughout the film all make it a relaxing experience, one that has an inherent gentleness. I hate to call a film ‘sweet’ because that is a term that comes with a lot of baggage when talking about movies, and this film is not really the sort of thing that comes to mind when someone uses the word. But that’s what this is, really – a charming and good-natured story where even the brief moments of darkness and odd shockingly graphic images are then made wholesome and inoffensive. It’s also a film that fully draws you into the mystery and the strangeness of events while never making your enjoyment dependent on an explanation. Like the characters in the story, the viewer can just sit back and enjoy the moment, taking time out to engage with the little things that the film explores.

It might be that this is not for everyone. But there is a festival tradition of films that power their way through on charm alone – often, it seems, Japanese oddities like One Cut of the Dead, where it becomes less about the genre credentials or the ‘elevated’ nature of the story and more about actual invention and a sense of feel-good entertainment. Ironically, these are actually the smartest films at most of the festivals they appear in; they just don’t labour the point or consider themselves above the genre that they are playing with. River is actually the sort of hard science fiction that was the stuff of literature rather than cinema – it just happens to have taken those complex ideas and humanised them. The result is a film that is delightfully inventive, fun, touching and cute, and it may be the best thing you’ll see this year.


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