Monday, March 18, 2013

Eden: Putting a Human Face on Human Trafficking

It is time to drastically raise the penalties for anyone involved in human trafficking.  Currently, for procurers and mules the rewards simply outweigh the risks in what is estimated to be a $32 billion illicit trade.  Is capital punishment unreasonable for those who lure innocent women into depraved enslavement and most likely death?  It is time to have that debate, prompted by Megan Griffith’s fact-based Eden (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Eden is largely based on the experiences of Chong Kim, a naturalized American citizen who spent years as a captive of trafficking ring.  Hyun Jae is the name of her cinematic analog, but her kidnappers dub her Eden for their clientele.  She has a dangerous secret—she looks younger than she is.  Most of the gang’s sex-slaves are disposed of once they reach her age.  Partly that is due to their customers’ tastes and partly a function of the extreme abuse they endure.

Determined to survive, Hyun Jae makes herself useful to Vaughan, the erratic deputy of the operation’s local supervisor, Federal Marshall Bob Gault.  Vaughan is ruthless and tenacious, but his IQ probably does not break 100.  Having Hyun Jae handle the cash and the phones helps the psychologically disturbed thug keep calm and collected.  However, Hyun Jae has not given up hope.  As she learns the inner workings of the organization, she bides her time.

Jamie Chung was perfectly fine in Man with the Iron Fists and became a breath of fresh air in the otherwise dumber-than-a-bag-full-of-hammers Knife Fight, but the raw power her work here is something else altogether.  It is harrowing to watch her, but also riveting and ultimately inspiring.  You are witnessing a victim resolving be a survivor, which is heavy.  Her scenes with Matt O’Leary’s relentlessly unnerving Vaughan are also genuinely intense and completely convincing.

Unlike other issue-driven human trafficking films, the chess game playing out between Hyun Jae and Vaughan focuses the narrative, building unexpected suspense.  This is clearly a film, tightly scripted by Griffiths and Richard B. Phillips, not a white paper-backgrounder.  Nonetheless, it exposes the horrifying crimes happening right here in America: Nevada for Hyun Jae and presumably someplace in the southwest for Chong Kim. 

Unfortunately, both the general public and law enforcement agencies have not been well trained to detect trafficking.  Still, those aiding and abetting should take one lesson from Eden to heart.  They are just one mistake away from an anonymous grave in the desert—and it’s exactly what they deserve.  Cinematographer Sean Porter effectively conveys the harshness of that wide open landscape (so helpful to the sex-slavers) as well as the dark, grimy conditions in which the women are held.

Eden addresses an important and timely topic, but the fearless performances from Chung and O’Leary will completely hook audiences on an emotional level.  Recommended for general audiences, Eden opens this Wednesday (2/20) at Film Forum.