Sunday, March 17, 2013

Megan Griffiths' EDEN opens in New York; something a little different for Film Forum

The best sex-trafficking movie I've yet seen (and these would include the likes of Lilya 4-Ever, Trade, Taken, The Whistleblower, Cargo and a bunch more), EDEN might at first seem an odd fit for NYC's prestige art film/documen-tary/repertory house, Film Forum. When TrustMovies first noticed that it was arriving here, he joked with one of the theater's publicists that it was about time Film Forum scheduled an exploitation movie. "But it's really not," the publicist Adam Walker rejoined. He's right. A near-object lesson in what separates exploitation from explanation, leaving maybe not an "art film" in its wake but a damned good, based-on-real-life tale, Eden is exemplary in several ways.

As co-written (with Richard B. Phillips, based on the real story of Chong Kim and her abduction into the sex trade) and directed by Megan Griffiths, the movie opts consistently for smart story-telling over the titillation that invariably accompanies movies on subjects such as this one. (That's why they're so often exploitation films.) Ms Griffiths is especially good at selecting the key events and mo-ments that bring to immediate life the present situation -- whether it's a romantic kiss turned suddenly strange (below, and yes, that's Scott Mechlowicz in an unusual "stalker" role) or the special gift of a kitten to each sex slave to help humanize prison life. Griffiths has the filmmaker's eye, not just for composition and color but for the unusual object or moment that means something special. She, and her movie, are full of surprise.

The film is fortunate to have in its leading role an actress of strength and focus, Jamie Chung (below and on the poster, top, and most recently seen in Knife Fight), who makes her character of Hyun Jae (soon to be re-christened the Eden of the title) someone we follow gladly and hopefully as she makes her way along the nasty and dangerous learning curve of the sex trade.

What Eden has to do -- and what Ms Griffiths is so very good at showing us -- is adjust quickly and smartly to every change, minor and major, in her situation. This includes her having to seem at times to side with her captors against the other girls. Events often arrive suddenly, making the movie surprising and fast-moving. There is just about zero padding here; every scene, every moment seems necessary. And nothing is overdone.

Also prominent in the cast are Beau Bridges (below) as a Federal Marshall, Tantoo Cardinal (at bottom) as the nurse who attends the sex slaves, and Matt O'Leary (above) as the very troubled young man in day-to-day charge of the operation. I have lambasted Mr. O'Leary in an earlier review of the film American Bully, so it pleases me no end to to tell you how very good he is in this role. (He's even better in the recent film Fat Kid Rules the World, which I hope to cover when time permits). He's got a quirky, sometimes scary versatility, which may remind you of a younger Ben Foster.

The film includes its share of blood, torture and death, yet so stringent is Ms Griffiths in keeping to her storytelling that we never feel beaten down by gore or reveling in despair. A body bag accompanied by the name of the young woman inside carries enormous weight here -- as much, I think, as would our seeing the actual body. Maybe even more, because there is a kind of inhuman remove about viewing only that tightly wrapped plastic bag.

Sparing us excessive gore, the filmmaker still manages to treat her subject with the darkness and ugliness that it deserves. You will come out of this movie understanding once again and even more deeply how despicable a thing is sex trafficking. Eden proves crack movie-making about a true-life tale and most important topic. What makes it especially troubling is that the trafficking all took place here, within U.S. borders.

From Phase 4 Films and running 98 minutes, the movie opens this Wednesday at Film Forum in New York City. Elsewhere theatrically? Yes: in Los Angeles on March 29 and Seattle on May 3.  And I have just learned that the VOD release occurs earlier than I had been told. Look for the film on VOD beginning April 20.

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