Ana Asensio in Most Beautiful Island.

Most Beautiful Island is that rare movie pitched as a “psychological thriller” that is truly a psychological thriller: the best parts happen in your mind while you’re watching it, as the filmmakers refuse to tell you what’s happening and you’re forced to assume the worst.

The film, now showing at South by Southwest in Austin, follows an immigrant woman trying to make a buck in the city, and being led—or misled—by another immigrant into a nail-biting haze of what did I get myself into? It presents as an in-depth probe into the streets and subways and shitty gigs of New York, with a gritty immediacy (it was shot on Super 16) that’s further wound up by the protagonist’s taut gestures, her hands almost ripping at the celluloid. A brief rubber chicken fight between playful, bored ladies is perhaps the only release in a film otherwise wrought and enjoyably nerve-wracking.

Writer, director, and star Ana Asensio was as evasive as the film itself, refusing to address any possible spoiler and keeping the “making of” mysterious. Incredibly, when we asked her what earlier readers or viewers thought was going to happen “behind that door,” she said, “Nobody who read the script or watched the film suspected what was behind the door at the party. And some people told me they couldn’t even watch it because it directly tapped into a primary fear.”

Well, we had all kinds of suspicions, but Asensio’s character sets up the pressures of the film best when she says: “I’m so tired of the possibilities.”

BB_Q(1) The opening of your film is almost nightmarish, and in her first lines your protagonist describes having nightmares. Does this open up the film to a dreamlike interpretation?

BB_A(1) That sequence is meant to establish the tone of the film and hint a bit at the protagonist’s emotional state.

BB_Q(1) Should we believe that everything in the film happens literally?

BB_A(1) Yes. The events of the film are to be taken literally. It is a day in the protagonist’s life. However, some of the more abstract imagery is the result of her subjective, disturbed perspective.

BB_Q(1) Your protagonist is almost a cypher– we don’t actually learn that much about her. Did you intend your film to be a kind of blank slate, where others can fill in their own fears and anxieties?

BB_A(1) The circumstances of the protagonist’s life are intentionally left somewhat ambiguous; requiring the audience to engage with her and her surroundings as she does to figure out how she fits into her world and to assess, in real time, if she is in danger. As with any film, it’s inevitable that the audience will contextualize the situation based on their own feelings and experiences.

BB_Q(1) In the moment when the immigrant women are lined up, being looked over by the “guests” of the “party,” it’s no more shocking than a “presentation” during fashion week, where models stand and are examined by a cocktail-sipping crowd. Are you deliberately drawing a line or a parallel between socially acceptable jobs for women and those that are exploitive or abusive?

BB_A(1) How unnerving (or, not) the circumstances are perceived to be will depend on the perspective of the audience member. Which is a good thing!

BB_Q(1) Can you elaborate? Do you have any experience or knowledge of “acceptable” jobs for women/immigrants that are perhaps questionable?

BB_A(1) After my student visa expired, and while waiting for my work permit, I ran out of my savings and I took jobs that I wouldn’t have otherwise taken, like passing out fliers in the street dressed in obnoxious costumes while freezing in high heels.

BB_Q(1) You raise the question yourself: is the problem that people can tend to exploit immigrants? Or is it that people can so completely disregard them as to view them as disposable— less than human?

BB_A(1) Empathy and compassion is something that I believe we all have inside. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t treat other people with the same respect that we would want for ourselves. And this happens more often with the ones we don’t consider our “equals.”

BB_Q(1) Obviously you were working on this film before Trump’s immigration ban, but what do you think now about the film’s resonance in these completely upside-down times?

BB_A(1) It’s strange to me that many Americans seem to forget that this country was colonized by immigrants, only a few generations ago.

The current immigration policy is misguided and cruel. We don’t need a more divided world than the one that we already live in. I know of a number of immigrants who are waiting to become legal residents, even after many years of living and working in the U.S.– they are valuable members of our community with deep roots, and they are afraid of what might happen to them and their families in the near future.

BB_Q(1) Your film plays on possibilities, teasing the audience with what they think the women are getting into. Other than the obvious– prostitution– what other red herrings do you think pass through the mind of the audience?

BB_A(1) Again, that is really going to depend on the personal lens through which the viewer evaluates Luciana’s circumstances.

BB_Q(1) Precisely what real life events inspired this movie?

BB_A(1) Many of the situations that happen to Luciana in the film I have either experienced them myself or other women that I know.

BB_Q(1) What kind of underground clubs have you heard of?

BB_A(1) I did my research; there are some obscure illegal places in NYC…

While researching the film, I spoke with New York City police officers and detectives about illegal places they knew of– most of them were sex-related, and some involved pretty dark fetishes. And, one acquaintance told me that he witnessed a fight to the death in an underground arena and was shocked by the demographic composition of the audience.

Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novels “The Painted GunandKilling Williamsburg,” and the writer/director of “#AnnieHall.”