Sunday, August 28, 2022

Silver Screen Time Machine: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020)

Tosa Kazunari in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020).

Somehow, Kato doesn’t freak out.

The essence of time travel is narrative. Like the unread pages of a good book, the future has already happened; it just hasn’t yet happened to you. The metaphor applies doubly to filmmaking, which usually takes a narrative and shoots it out of order. Continuity must be maintained, and character and emotional arcs made convincing. If they aren’t, paradoxes manifest, the cinematic world collapses, and viewers branch off from the storyworld prematurely, each into their own individual lifeworlds.

2020’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら “We at the End of the Droste”), director-cinematographer-editor Yamaguchi Junta’s feature debut, realizes this metaphor in the most direct way. Beyond is shot to look like it was done in a single take, using just one phone, tripod, boom mic, the world’s longest power cord, and lots and lots of stopwatches. To give you a sense of its flavor, it was inspired by One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな! “Don’t Stop the Camera!”), Ueda Shinichiro’s 2017 smash hit about a group of people tasked with making a one-shot microbudget zombie film. There are cuts in Beyond – of course there are cuts; it’s a time travel film – but to keep up the illusion, the requisite plot complications have to develop organically from the situation the characters find themselves in, and from who they are as characters, as people. Writer Ueda Makoto does a hell of a job in just 70 minutes.

Friends arrive to both simplify and complicate things.

The hoodie-wearing Kato (Tosa Kazunari) owns a café on the first floor of a walk-up, where he lives on the second floor. He leads a simple life with simple desires, namely a crush on Megumi (Asakura Aki), the hairdresser next door. One day after work, Kato heads back to his room, where, while looking for a dropped guitar pick, he hears someone calling him from the two-way TV screen behind him, which he has hooked up to another screen in the café as a kind of CCTV. He turns around and sees . . . himself. Somehow, he doesn’t freak out. He tells himself to come down to the screen in the café, quick. There, he sees himself in his room and repeats what he has just heard himself say.

Turns out there’s a two-minute time delay from the screen in his room (let’s call this the future screen) to the one in the café (the past screen). The future screen shows what will happen two minutes into the future, as seen by the camera of the past screen. This immediately poses a couple of filmmaking problems. The conversations between past and future selves have to be plausibly motivated, while not exceeding a strict time limit that includes the time it takes to move between the two locations. This means that the plot can only advance in bits and pieces, yielding the side benefit that there’s no time for the exposition to get carried away with itself. In addition, the line deliveries and physical performances have to match; to make it easier, the actors are directed to go broad and simplify emotion, a choice whose practical motivation is well-hidden by the film’s comic genre and low budget.

You have to time it perfectly.

Some friends arrive to both simplify and complicate things. To test the time delay for themselves, they receive and send passwords and scratch card lottery results through the screens. Then, in the first sign that everything may not be as rosy as it seems, Kato is egged on to ask Megumi out to a concert – including by his future self, who announces success. Kato goes, but Megumi rejects him, saying that she doesn’t listen to live music. To maintain timeline continuity, he announces success to the past screen and, more importantly given their enthusiasm for temporal shenanigans, to his friends.

One of Kato’s friends has the galaxy-brained idea of bringing the future screen to the café, so that both screens face each other. This creates the Droste effect of the Japanese title, more commonly known as mise en abyme, where an image is repeatedly embedded into itself recursively. Practically speaking, every level of screen embedment lets Kato and the gang see two minutes into the future. Assuming you can make out what’s going on ten screens in, when something happens on the tenth screen, it’ll repeat two minutes later in the ninth screen, then two minutes after that in the eighth screen, and so on. Ten screens lets you see twenty minutes into the future. Simple, right?

You can’t ask the clock to adjust.

As any filmmaker will tell you, there’s a world of difference between a film critic with no filmmaking experience and an actual filmmaker, however mediocre. Ten levels of screen embedment shows you what happens twenty minutes into the future; it also foreordains what must happen twenty minutes later. The images are like a temporal wave, growing larger and larger every two minutes until, at last, you have to do in front of the past screen what you saw yourself do in the future screen. And you have to time it perfectly.

Well, about that last point: time travel is a curious thing. Most of the canon is split into two narrative archetypes for protagonists who see into the future. In one, they try their best to avoid it, and fail – the self-fulfilling prophecy. In the other, they do whatever it takes to keep future events on track, and succeed – the multiverse narrative. In one, free will doesn’t exist; in the other, it does. But in both cases, the timeline for each universe remains unchanged. To resolve this paradox, to collapse the indeterminate quantum waveform, we can combine the two archetypes, like adding together two perfectly calibrated binomial functions, thereby canceling out the variable of free will and leaving only the timeline. Free will neither exists nor not exists: it’s irrelevant.

You should never pick up money you find on the ground outside.

Talk of time travel reminds me of Arrival (2016). In the Ted Chiang story from which it’s adapted, “Story of Your Life,” learning the alien language doesn’t let Louise move freely between past and present. The fact that future events are written out as if in a book makes the reader of that book unwilling to try to change or even reveal those events – like how water never tries to flow upward. From the perspective of time itself, free will is irrelevant. So, yes, Kato and co. are very anxious about hitting their marks exactly, especially as plot complications pile up. But they needn’t be, for time would never let them miss their marks, nor would the film. It’s an entirely different story for the actors. As in Birdman (2014), the actors had to be extremely precise about hitting their marks; but here, they also had to deal with a fixed time interval of two minutes. You can’t ask the clock to adjust to slight rushing or dragging by human actors. Hence, in the making-of footage we see as the credits roll, there’s an overabundance of stopwatches and diagrams drawn on paper. The great part about shooting at a single café location is that you can plan in the morning, rehearse in the afternoon, and shoot in the evening, all with in-house catering.

So you have a time machine, even if it’s just a window into the very near future. What do you do with it? One friend sees his far future self-announce that he’s won a rare toy from a capsule vending machine, and he runs off to win it. If you live in a neoliberal capitalist society, you might come up with the idea that Kato’s other friends do: see if there’s any money lying around nearby. As soon as they have the idea, lo and behold, their excited selves appear in the future screen, flashing a stack of bills. Knowing that the future screen is a fallible prophet, Kato objects, but they run off anyway to find that dough.

Asakura Aki and Tosa Kazunari in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (2020).

Knife-pulling and kidnapping are the first uncontrolled events to appear on the screens.

There’s an East Asian belief that you should never pick up money you find on the ground outside. Losing money is bad luck, but it’s much better than the worse luck of losing life or limb. So you can deliberately toss money to rid yourself of worse luck. That tossed money is unlucky. If someone were to pick it up, misfortune would befall them.

Kato is left alone. At this point, Megumi walks in and gives him a cymbal she doesn’t need and has no room for. I’m delighted to inform you that, in Japanese, cymbal (シンバル shinbaru) and symbol (シンボル shinboru) are also homophones – well, nearly. Is a cymbal a symbol if it’s foreshadowing? As Kato and Megumi talk, they notice that, in the future screen, a dangerous-looking man holds a knife to one of Kato’s friends, and another drags Megumi away. In the present, the friends return with a thrown-out VCR and show Kato how it’s stuffed full of money. They announce their find to the past screen.

People’s intentions produce unexpected effects.

Before Kato can get Megumi out of there, two yakuza saunter in asking about their money, which the wife of a traitorous associate had hidden in a thrown-out VCR. Kato’s friends, idiots that they are and heedless of the VCR on the table, claim that they won the money betting on horses. Immediately, they see themselves on the past screen, one level deep, announcing their find. The yakuza see it too, and the predetermined knife-pulling and kidnapping are the first uncontrolled events to appear on the screens, which explains why nobody noticed before. Those stopwatches are really getting a workout.

The friend who wins the capsule toy returns. So much has changed since he first set out, but in a familiar echo, he has to say his lines as if nothing were the matter in order to maintain timeline continuity. I sometimes find sci-fi scary, particularly when it has to do with time. Primer (2004). The Man from Earth (2007). The Doctor Who episode “Blink” (2007). There are many theories about time (that “big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey . . . stuff,” to quote the good Doctor) that are mathematically possible. When – if – we ever hit on the right one(s), it’ll be empirically, by trial and error. We won’t know where we go wrong until it’s too late. Before then, all we’ll know is that something strange is going on, but we won’t understand why. Time is a cold god, and all we can do is assure our past selves that everything is going great. Filmmaking, too, is a whirlwind of chaos, as Truffaut memorably showed.  You may have already shot the ending scene, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually get there. As in war, plans are rarely left intact; it’s a collaboration, and everyone has notes. If your budget is big enough, you’ll also have studio execs and focus groups second-guessing you. Preserving continuity with that last scene will take a miracle. And at the end of it all, you’ll have to sit through a press junket and assure the world over and over again how amazing the film was to make. Empiricism spun as narrative.

Kato impales himself on the knife right in the belly.

Apologies to “death and taxes” Ben Franklin (actually Christopher Bullock), but the only two certainties in life are that we were born, and we shall die. Everything in between is just one damned thing after another. People have designs on each other, some benign, some not. Unlike our two categories of temporal narrative archetypes, people’s intentions don’t cancel each other out when collapsed together; they don’t add up to anything; they produce unexpected effects; they’re distorted by the external environment. “Life,” as Kierkegaard said, “can only be understood by looking backward,” but that’s only because our memory is faulty, and we disregard elements that don’t fit a narrative; when it’s “lived looking forward,” everything happens immediately, and we can only take it on the chin and keep going. The magic of Beyond is that it makes it feel like life can offer a preplanned narrative.

The yakuza take Megumi to their office for interrogation, which happens to be on the fifth floor of the walk-up. What to do? Kato and friends notice that the future screen is moving up the staircase, and they deduce that Kato must carry the past screen up, while his friends pass him help gleaned from the future screen; like I said, they have the world’s longest power cord. Up to this point, we have been seeing unknown unknowns, assumptions that should have been doubted; this sequence returns us to the more traditional narrative element of known unknowns – suspense – as each of Kato’s friends runs up to hand him an obscure object: a ketchup bottle, to be placed in the pocket of his hoodie; the (symbolic!) cymbal, to be worn on his back; and the capsule toy his friend won from the vending machine – it looks like an insect, which apparently will come in handy.

The essence of time travel is narrative.

Time travel narratives, like filmmaking, can sometimes be a series of puzzles to solve. Let’s see if you got this one right. Kato walks in on the yakuza tying Megumi up. One wields his knife merely to threaten, and Kato impales himself on it right in the belly/ketchup bottle. While they’re confused and distracted, he bludgeons the guy on the head. The other yakuza pulls a gun, and Kato turns to untie Megumi, letting the cymbal on his back bite the bullet. Finally, he shoves the toy insect at the yakuza, scaring the entomophobe into submission. On Kato’s way back down, Megumi follows behind, collecting the power cord.

The inevitable arrives, in the form of two time cops who incapacitate Kato’s friends and force Kato and Megumi at ray-gun point to take memory-wiping powder. The cops make a good case in describing the dual-screen setup as a wormhole that could lead to temporal paradoxes, and the future screen shows Megumi downing the powder, followed by Kato. And yet, as Interstellar (2014) tells us, love is a power strong enough to bend the fabric of time. Neither Kato or Megumi wants to forget the night’s events, or the romantic possibilities that might develop. So, instead of pouring the powder in their mouth, they sneeze. It’s a powder – honest mistake – hand on heart. But that’s no comfort to the time cops now caught in a paradox, and they slowly fade away.


The essence of time travel is narrative. After the long night they have had, Kato makes Megumi a cup of coffee, and she, who turns out to be as skeptical about seeing into the future as he is, asks him what the hell happened tonight. As he starts back at the beginning, the camera pans to the future screen, where, two screens deep, Kato and Megumi show up, and turn it off.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cj_sheu.

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