Getting lost in a sea of trees
Winnipegger's film fails to deliver on its promise
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/09/2016 (2258 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Aokigahara, the Japanese wilderness area at the base of Mount Fuji (more ominously known as the “Suicide Forest”) has been the setting for no less than three films released in 2016, including the Natalie Dormer horror film The Forest and the Gus Van Sant indie The Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey.
Former Winnipegger Nadia Litz contributes her own feature film to this inexplicably topical geography. Like the other two films, it involves a search for a missing loved one, feared dead.
“Loved one” may be overstating it in this case. The willowy Sweetpea (Dree Hemingway, daughter of actress Mariel Hemingway and great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway) actually arrives in Japan with the intention of breaking up with her rock-star boyfriend Jamie (François Arnaud) in person.
She is picked up at the airport by Mak (Jai Tatsuto West), a mysterious man presumed to be a production assistant on the music video Jamie is shooting in the forest. But from there, Sweetpea finds herself somewhat adrift in the Sea of Trees after the blasé video director (James Le Gros) tells her, “We’ve misplaced Jamie.”
More disconcertingly, Sweetpea discerns she has a romantic rival in a beautiful dancer called Signe (Pamela Anderson) who has likely had a fling with the errant rocker prior to his disappearance. The situation compels a reconsideration of her troubled relationship, even as a spark develops between Sweetpea and Mak over furtive bouts of cigarette smoking.
As a writer-director, Litz eschews both the horror interpretation and the verbose drama. If the film is beholden to any cinematic precedents, it would be Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 enigma L’Avventura, a beautiful, ponderous movie in which, in the course of a search for a missing woman, her lover and her best friend become attracted to one another.
One scene in particular may sum up The People Garden. Growing ever more desperate to find any sign of Jamie’s whereabouts, Sweetpea burglarizes his cabin and uses a wire coat hanger to jimmy a locked desk drawer, only to find it empty.
The scene may represent the whole film in microcosm. The set-up promises some kind of dramatic climax but comes up largely vacant.
Dree Hemingway has an undeniable screen presence but her delivery is flat. As the de facto male lead, Vancouver actor Jai Tatsuto West has the looks of a charismatic tough guy from the golden age of Japanese crime thrillers, and it’s a shame the role falls back on that most clichéd characteristic of Japanese film characters in western films: inscrutability.
Pamela Anderson represents some interesting casting, given her own experience with priapic rock stars. But notwithstanding a brief, beautifully photographed nude scene (by cinematographer Catherine Lutes), Anderson’s amplified sexuality doesn’t serve in a movie that, at one point, requires her to dangle from a crane in gossamer robes like an angel in a B-movie.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.