The People Garden, dir. Nadia Litz │Nadia Litz’s tragically poetic second feature, The People Garden, had me at its use of “Running Up That Hill” as the soundtrack for what turns out to be a deceitfully upbeat introduction. The popular Kate Bush song is both sensual and punchy in a very 80s-dance-music style, and appositely complements the rose-tinted depiction of Sweetpea and Jamie grooving to its pulse. The lighthearted tone of this opening scene further emphasizes the harsh contrast and abruptness with which we are transitioned into the next couple of shots, where Sweetpea stands in total isolation and violent detachment from the ephemeral euphoria with which we first encountered her. These fragmented shots establish early on that our protagonist is an outsider, and in spite of her going to Japan to find a familiar face, Sweetpea will continue to be out of the loop and completely alienated by Catherine Lutes‘s oblique cinematography throughout this chilling film.

From the minute Sweetpea arrives in Japan, she takes out her phone and snaps a picture of the beautiful scenery from an airport window. Not only is this a markedly millennial way of perceiving beauty at a certain distance (#views) and of amplifying reality under the collective zeal to immortalize one’s experience of it (#RL), but it also establishes a precedent for Sweetpea’s offbeat synergy with the world through technologically mediated interactions. In one of the film’s first inklings of suspense, Sweetpea uses her phone to capture a glimpse of two people conversing deep within the thicket–a virtually documented moment that she will keep coming back to as sole proof that Jamie is still lost somewhere in this overwhelmingly dense forest. Similar to in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Sweetpea relies on this image (and on his cellphone’s battery status) rather than on her own observations as evidence of Jamie’s whereabouts. But unlike the glamorous British photographer, she incorporates her own desire to find what she was already looking for into the medium, and consequently discredits it as an unbiased and valid source. Sweetpea’s disconnection to the truth and her inability to access the facts surrounding the situation is replicated in her relation to the audience–for her motivations are consistently thwarted and we are never provided with any background information to help us latch onto this unwinding mystery. But these ambiguities and enigmas are also the story’s strengths and what hook us to the film; every time we feel to be getting closer, we seem to have gone completely off-track.

Litz is reluctant to provide us with any guide tape that we can just tack on these fleeting moments so we don’t get disoriented–after delving into the wandering tale of a missing rock-star, a callous music video crew, a local guide who point us in the wrong direction, and a distressed damsel who can’t figure out whether she needs to rescue or be rescued. It’s as if James Le Gros’ line, “You can look all you want, but you’re not going to find anything I don’t want you to find” seems to resonate more powerfully with the audience than with his intended addressee. Even Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” that once felt so intimate and familiar comes back to haunt us with new connotations of melancholy and intoxicating estrangement. With each recurrence, the song takes on a different meaning, just as every one of Sweetpea’s encounters do–almost to remind us that, in the wise words of Signe, we are way out of our league in terms of what we’ve come to expect from this eerily profound film.