Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, August 2013
Synopsis:1994, New Mexico. 18-year-old Korean-born American Hyun-Jae is picked up in a bar by a handsome fireman, realising too late that his uniform is as fake as her ID. Abducted and drugged, she wakes in a storage facility in the Nevada desert, where she and others girls are held captive and prostituted against their will. Bob Gault, a corrupt Federal Marshall, keeps the law at bay, while the younger, meth-addicted Vaughan manages the ‘stable’. Renamed ‘Eden’, Hyun-jae quickly learns that escape attempts are futile, and result in harsh punishment.
A year later, after her pregnant younger friend Priscilla is taken away, Hyun-jae offers to help Vaughan with the books and the daily running of the operation, and soon displaces the older Svetlana in Vaughan’s trust. Later, after Bob and Vaughan dispose of some bodies (including Svetlana’s), Vaughan murders Bob in front of Hyun-jae, reassuring her that the kill was ordered “from the top.”
Vaughan takes Hyun-jae to the home of Mario, whom she recognises as one of her abductors. Seeing the heavily pregnant Priscilla – and a delivery room – there, Hyun-jae realises Mario is selling babies. Caught with a wire, staff member Ivan is executed. As Vaughan prepares to move everyone out to Dubai, Hyun-jae poisons his meth pipe and kills him. After failing to buy Priscilla from Mario, she gives him a morphine overdose, rescues her friend, and calls her mother.
Review: Corrupt Federal Marshall Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) chooses the alias ‘Eden’ for teenaged Hyun-jae (Jamie Chung), both because the trailer park where she used to live with her parents in Las Cruces was called Eden’s Garden, and because, as he himself says, ‘eden’ comes from the Hebrew for ‘delight’ – a quality that he hopes Hyun-jae will embody. Eden is also of course the Biblical locus of innocence lost – and sure enough the film that takes Hyun-jae’s (false) name for its title will turn out to be, much like William Grefé’s The Devil’s Sisters (1966), Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (2002), Juanita Wilson’s As If I Am Not There (2010) and Paul Hyett’s The Seasoning House (2012), a harrowing tale of a young woman’s abduction into sex slavery.
Unlike all those films, however, Eden addresses human trafficking within the United States: Hyun-jae, a naturalised American, never leaves the country’s borders, but instead services porn shoots, frat parties, club orgies and suburban homes in dusty Nevada, all very much against her will and under constant threat of torture or worse. It is all drawn too closely for comfort from the real-life experiences of sex-trafficking survivor Chong Kim (as documented in the 2011 book Not in My Town), and comes as a compelling j’accuse to any Westerners who imagine that their ‘clean’ homegrown sex industry is always predicated upon consent.
To prevent her film about exploitation also becoming an exploitation film (like, say, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, also starring Chung), director/co-writer Megan Griffiths (The Off Hours) keeps the sex (and eventually violence) determinedly deglamorised and mostly off screen. Her focus instead is characterisation, in a film where even the villains of the piece – like volatile facility manager Vaughan (Matt O’Leary) – are humanised with elaborate histories and nuanced personalities.
From the start, identity is complicated here. 18-year-old Hyun-jae gets into a bar using a fake ID, only to have her confidence won over by a kidnapper disguised as a fireman. If it is implied that Korean national Hyun-jae is targeted because her abductors incorrectly assume she is not a US citizen, she will soon have a new name, and be changing her all-American accent for faux-Chinese tones as part of her meretricious patter with the clients. As well as trouble-shooting for the brothel, Gault is a respected lawman, husband and father. Vaughan is an ex-soldier with a Mennonite upbringing who deludes himself that he is improving the outlook of the women under his charge, even as he knows full well that his own life, like theirs, comes with a used-by date in this business – and innocent victim Hyun-jae will discover that her best chance for survival and perhaps escape is to become involved in the business end of this abusive operation, even if that means having to live with the fatal consequences of her imposture. In leaving Eden behind, Hyun-jae is also unmasking the hidden face of our so-called civilised society.