‘The People Garden’: Film Review
Three’s way too many when it comes to movies dealing with a mysterious Japanese forest that's famous for all the wrong reasons.
Apparently Japan’s Aokigahara forest, renowned as a destination of those with suicidal tendencies, is also where American films go to die. Following the abysmal reception earlier this year for Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees and similarly disinterested response to The Forest, both of which dealt with mysterious events in Aokigahara, The People Garden hits new lows of implausibility and inanity. Anyone mistakenly wandering into a theatrical screening is likely to urgently warn others away from an eventual digital release for this drastically misconceived feature.
Determined to split up in person with her narcissistic boyfriend Jamie (Francois Arnaud), Sweetpea (Dree Hemingway) flies all the way to Japan from the U.S. to try and catch up with him on the fringes of the notorious forest located on the flanks of Mt. Fuji, where he’s shooting a music video for his latest project. Instead, she learns from the director (James Le Gros) that Jamie has disappeared — maybe into the forest or perhaps back to the city or even out of the country — nobody seems to know. The project’s producers don’t appear too concerned about his whereabouts and she receives similarly unhelpful responses from Signe (Pamela Anderson), the video’s mysterious diva, as well as the Japanese staff on duty at the rustic forest camp.
Mak (Jai Tatsuto West), the only English-speaker among them, reluctantly assists Sweetpea in looking for Jamie, a process that consists mostly of roaming through the nearby forest without any specific plan. When her search proves fruitless, she becomes suspicious that the cast and crew may know something that they’re not telling her (although nobody mentions the forest’s ominous reputation), but her repeated interrogations don’t turn up any leads. Then an unexpected tragedy reveals some disturbing context for Jamie’s disappearance, leading Sweetpea to question her previous assumptions about her errant boyfriend.
Litz’s numerous missteps become obvious almost from the outset, when she fails to provide any background on Sweetpea (or her nickname), her relationship with Jamie or any justification for why someone would travel to a remote location halfway around the world to end a clearly troubled relationship. Although the video shoot appears to be a fairly sizeable production, which includes scaffolding and a crane to lift Signe high into the air for an aerial sequence, there’s no indication that Jamie actually is a rock star or any evidence of a supporting band. Crucially, Litz misses almost every opportunity to build atmosphere and create suspense, or even a hint of heightened drama, rendering the tone of the film virtually somnambulistic throughout.
Performances are similarly off-target, with Hemingway (daughter of Mariel) smoking and sulking her way through most of the film. Arnaud appears only briefly as her mysterious boyfriend, as does Le Gros as the helpless video director. Anderson actually adds a bit of class as the icy actress haughtily resisting Sweetpea’s intrusive inquiries, but never gets much to do that is of any import.
At least the production looks attractive enough and Litz shoots many of the forest sequences almost lyrically, with the Pacific Northwest standing in for some of the Japanese locations, but pretty visuals are a poor substitute for empty sentiments.
Production companies: Scythia Films, Aiken Heart Films, JoBro Productions, Pacific Northwest Pictures
Cast: Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Francois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West
Director-writer: Nadia Litz
Producers: Coral Aiken, Daniel Bekerman, Jonathan Bronfman
Executive producers: David Anselmo, Lon Molnar, Ethan Lazar, Lon Molnar
Director of photography: Catherine Lutes
Production designer: Zosia Mackenzie
Costume designer: Ariana Preece
Editor: Simon Ennis
Not rated, 83 minutes