Movie Review: Nadia Litz's THE PEOPLE GARDEN

I have always been enamored of Aokigahara forest. There’s something about a place nicknamed “The Suicide Forest” that is morbidly intriguing to me. A place where people are drawn to spend their last hours on this planet, alone with their thoughts and emotions among the sea of trees, as it’s also known. It’s aptly named and is dense with forest in all directions making it an environment perfect for solitude. 

I was lucky enough to visit Aokigahara in June of 2015 on my first trip to Japan. When planning the holiday I had already told my husband that no matter what, we were going to “The Suicide Forest!” As you enter Aokigahara, you’re met with a sign asking visitors, in Japanese, to “think of your family before taking your life”, along with information on suicide prevention. It’s certainly not the most inviting of places, unless of course you, like myself, are an admirer of the darker things in life.

Obviously I’m not the only fan of such macabre topics, since a total of three movies were released within this past year all centering around Aokigahara forest. The first was the critically panned “The Sea of Trees” which was heckled and loudly booed at the Cannes Film Festival. The second was supernatural horror “The Forest”, and the third, “The People Garden”, is the only one I’ve seen, and will be discussing with you today. 

“The People Garden”, directed by Canadian actress turned filmmaker Nadia Litz, is a drama mystery about a woman named Sweetpea (Dree Hemingway) who travels to Japan determined to break up with her musician boyfriend Jamie (François Arnaud). Jamie is filming a music video with the still beautiful for her age Signe (Pamela Anderson) and has chosen the sprawling and mysterious Aokigahara forest for the setting. 

Sweetpea arrives in this foreign land only to be left standing by herself at the airport for hours awaiting the delayed arrival of Jamie. Instead she is picked up by Mak (Jai Tatsuto West) who works in the forest. Mak chauffeurs Sweetpea to Aokigahara where she’s meant to meet Jamie on the set. He drops her off, gives her vague directions, a hastily drawn map and a spool of yellow marking tape and leaves her to search for Jamie, who has mysteriously disappeared.

The movie’s tone matches its setting, oozing desperation and dejection. There is an overwhelming sense of loss portrayed by each of the main characters. Loss of love, loss of beauty and ultimately loss of life. Everyone seems to be concealing something, whether it’s an object or a feeling. This is most evident in our protagonist’s loss of love for her partner as well as literally losing him to the forest.

I enjoyed the setting and score, which lends to the overall tone and feel of the movie. The cinematography by Catherine Lutes is beautiful and effective. The rest of the cast, including blonde bombshell Pamela Anderson, helps foster the sense of loss and secrecy that is felt throughout the film. 

Dree’s performance is not overly convincing and some of the line delivery is a bit stunted. I’ll admit that she can shed a decent tear or two and definitely seems to improve in the end. She comes from entertainment royalty, the niece of model and actress Margot Hemingway and great-granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway, both having ended their own lives. Perhaps it was a deliberate casting choice based on her tragic family history.

Though not a horror movie, it deals with horrific themes. Desperation and desolation are things we’ve all felt at some time. Whether we no longer hold the same love for our partner or we’ve come to a point in our lives where our age bracket leaves us feeling irrelevant, we can relate to the characters in the film one way or another. Unfortunately the movie as a whole doesn’t fully come together. Something is missing and just maybe that something was also lost in the forest.

Cindy Van Wert

THE PEOPLE GARDEN will be opening in Los Angeles and VOD Nationwide September 13