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Fantasia 2023: River, The Becomers, Aporia

One of my greatest festival discoveries in the years I have covered Fantasia online and in person was Junta Yamaguchi’s “Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes,” a time-traveling, screen-within-a-screen-within-a-screen odyssey set in more or less one location, made to look like one shot. It’s the kind of work by a filmmaker that instantly makes you a life-long advocate. Yamaguchi returns this year with another nonpareil work, “River,” written by Makoto Ueda, the brilliant screenwriter behind “Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes.” 

Yamaguchi is a storyteller who clearly is interested in coincidences, happenstances, and timelines. Which might explain why his new film is about another infinite two minutes, concerning characters at a Japanese inn who find their lives jumping back to their original starting place every 120 seconds. The focal character for this trippy but sober and light existential crisis is Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), who works at the inn and finds herself staring at the same river. In shots that unfold in single takes before starting at the same place again (with different starting angles), she and other workers try to understand what is going on while caring for the guests. One of the script's most clever aspects is how everyone’s conscience is linear, meaning that they can learn more about this strange scenario, before resetting. Eventually the torment reduces to a puzzle to be simply solved, although some guests are tired of eating rice every two minutes. 

It almost doesn’t matter that “River” is slightly exhausting, and of course, repetitive. Yamaguchi keeps the story breezy and amusing with gradual developments while working against its conceit—new character problems are brought into the fold, piling onto the overall challenge of how to stop this phenomenon happening on an otherwise calm day. It’s nifty stuff, and far more challenging to explain than to understand as it unfolds scene by scene. Though "River" doesn’t achieve the same level of entertainment as “Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes,” it’s still the work of a filmmaker with an invigorating belief in what entertainment be achieved by thinking outside a linear timeline and using minimal special effects. 

Zach Clark’s “The Becomers,” a Chicago-shot sci-fi rom-com that had its world premiere in Montreal, succeeds in being a strange valentine. But it is less moving when it comes to connecting the heart of it all, in telling a story of two alien lifeforms (one with turquoise eyes and another with purple) who inhabit different human bodies while in search of each other. 

Russell Mael of the band Sparks offers his tender, non-sarcastic voice for bits of narration in which we learn poetically about the aliens’ wistful memories. He also ushers in a deadpan nature that is carried on by other performances, especially as the aliens take over the likes of a pregnant woman, a suburban housewife with a bizarre secret, a bus driver, and others. The ensemble cast is in tune with the sentimental weirdness of this tale, one that has Covid callbacks with people talking about how isolation has changed them. But this movie left me a bit cold, far more cold than one should feel for a love story so invested in its funky poetry. That while it’s trying to be strange (“Drinking salt wine from our lava glasses,” our lovers recall), it’s still trying to make a wayward, grandiose statement about the souls we are destined for across galaxies. Along the way, despite good pacing and some surprising turn of events, “The Becomers” gets lost.  

Aporia,” which premiered at Fantasia before its release on August 11, is the case of a sci-fi movie with only its intriguing time machine to possibly recommend it. But as the machine is, it’s a hunk of junk, a steel barrel with cords and wires and a twig-looking thing attached to it. The function of this machine is that it’s “a gun that can fire a bullet into the past,” according to its brainy creator Jabir (Payman Maadi), who becomes part of a plan for using it just like that. 

Originally, it’s Jabir’s friend’s widow, Sophie (Judy Greer), who elects to use the device to fix a new pain. Her husband Mal (Edi Gathegi) was killed by a drunk driver eight months prior, and it has hollowed her out and made their daughter Riley (Faithe Herman) a school-hating delinquent. Sophie does a little reconnaissance on who inflicted this pain, and after seeing the man as an indignant drunk who yells at his ex-wife, she decides that yes, he can die. Jabir and Sophie elect to use the machine to have the man die while on a retreat in the past. It works, and early into this hollow, pseudo-smart parable, Mal is back in Sophie’s life, as if he never left (although the spatula is in a different drawer, stuff like that). 

But if it were only that easy. Using junky dialogue and one forceful emotional beat after another, “Aporia” makes the obvious statement about how changing the past is no clean act, along with the slightly more interesting but dull assertion that no one “deserves” to experience such loss. Writer/director Moshé’s script desperately needles what little goodwill and emotional depth it has by presenting such a growingly tedious concept in which smart characters played by interesting actors make clueless decisions. At one point, a sick child subplot is thrown in, in case we didn’t know who to feel bad for, or what simplicity this movie was channeling. Being driven by emotions is one thing; trashing your creation for the cheapest wisdom is another. 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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