Film Review: The People Garden

An interminable slog about a woman who ventures into a mysterious Japanese forest looking for her missing rock-star boyfriend.
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After January’s The Forest and August’s The Sea of Trees, The People Garden is the third 2016 release to concern an American venturing into a mysterious Japanese forest where people go to kill themselves – and, no matter the awfulness of its two predecessors, it’s also the worst. A turgid drama that shuffles forward toward a meaningless endpoint, writer/director Nadia Litz’s film is rooted in a mystery that it never sells as important. That’s almost as deleterious as its fundamental emptiness in terms of character and theme, as this oblique indie (running a mercifully brief 82 minutes) comes across as merely a collection of ominously framed images devoid of purpose.

The People Garden’s wholesale affectation begins with the name of its protagonist, Sweetpea (Dree Hemingway), who’s introduced making a trip to Japan because, as she tells an airline ticket counter employee, she’s going to break up with her boyfriend Jamie (François Arnaud). Upon landing, she’s picked up at the airport by Mak (Jai West), a Japanese man in a work suit, who drives her to the edge of the woods and tells her to wander inside. She does, with roller-suitcase in tow, and soon bumps into a young girl who can’t speak any English. A short time later, she locates her destination – a shoot for her rock-star beau’s new music video, directed by a nameless filmmaker (James Le Gros) and starring model Signe (Pamela Anderson). They have bad news for her: Jamie has up and disappeared into the surrounding wild, and no one can find him.

Sweetpea reacts poorly to this news in myriad scenes marked by dialogue that’s drawn out to emphasize the silences between words. The script’s pretentious verbal rhythms are married to some strikingly haunting images of the forest and the campground (a few clearings, some wooden cabins) at which Sweetpea and the rest of the crew are staying. Alas, there’s so little momentum to The People Garden that Sweetpea’s anxiety over Jamie’s whereabouts generates no suspense. Mak and his similarly dressed workmen (all of whom have numbers for names) speak in cryptic fragments via walkie-talkie. Anderson gets naked (surprise!) and confesses to having “banged” Jamie. And Sweetpea snoops around the area, looking for clues to Jamie’s whereabouts. All of this takes place oh-so-very slowly, and with an air of great import. Yet such posturing is at odds with the material at hand, which plays like a vacuous slog through a pseudo-purgatorial landscape that’s destined to end with the type of surprise ending that surprises absolutely no one.

It does, although The People Garden’s conclusion is less intolerable than its journey, which is awash in blank people acting in vague ways for unknown reasons. Whether Sweetpea has entered into the exact same Aokigahara forest featured in The Forest and The Sea of Trees is left unclear, but it ultimately doesn’t matter, since this netherworld of haunted visages and hanging-by-belts corpses is just as indistinct, and uninteresting, as every other element of this woeful faux-dreamlike drama.

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