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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

SIFF 2012 Review: Eden

Much as I admired director Megan Griffiths’ last feature, The Off Hours, when I heard her next project was a film based on a real story about a young girl abducted into the sex trade, who survives by cooperating and allying herself with her captors, I wasn’t convinced that was the best project for the rising director to tackle next. Partly this was because I’d just seen The Whistleblower at last year’s SIFF, and I found that film’s graphic depiction of the sexual and physical torture and abuse of young girls disturbing and gratuitous, and partly it was the question of what value there was in making another film about the illegal sex trade so soon after that one. What more could there be to say?

Turns out, in Griffiths’ capable hands, quite a lot.

The Off Hours demonstrated Griffiths’ keen understanding of subtext and portrayal of relationships and character arc, and she’s used those same skills here to find the angle on this story that would make it reverberate with tension and emotion without being gratuitous or exploitative. On the surface, Eden is about the abduction of young girls who are held captive in the Nevada desert and forced to work in the sex trade; the subtext is that this is a story of survival and the resilience of the human spirit, which Griffiths achieves by keeping her lens squarely focused on Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung, simply terrific here), a 17-year-old girl, renamed “Eden” by her abductors, whose minor moment of rebellion against her traditional Korean-American parents results in her getting abducted into the sex trade, and the complicated moral choices she has to make in order to survive as her situation grows more desperate.

The script, credited to both Griffiths and Richard P. Phillips, firmly keeps the sexual degradation these young girls endure in the shadows of our imagination, rather than voyeuristically serving it up to the audience. We know going in this is based on a true story, that these young girls, roughly aged 12 to 18, were kept in a storage facility and forced to have sex with the kind of men who pay to engage in sex acts with underage girls. It’s a truly reprehensible tale that delves into the murkiest side of human nature, but Griffiths treats her female characters with dignity, respect, and empathy, making Eden a sort of post-feminist perspective on what happened to the real girls these actors represent here.

This smart directorial choice allows Griffiths to focus on her lead character, and to allow Eden’s moral conundrum to serve as the fulcrum around which the story revolves as we see her go from bewilderment to rebellion to a surface acceptance of her circumstances, underscored by a watchful determination to find a way out. How far would you go to survive, if you found yourself caught in a trap? What would you — could you? — do in order to escape? The complexity of Eden as a character requires an incredibly strong and compelling performance by Chung, and she’s more than up to the task here, delivering a career-high turn in this coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence tale.

I suppose I should note that the male characters here, for the most part, are pretty one-note; then again, this is a movie about the kind of men who kidnap and hold young girls captive in order to sell them for sex, and the kind of men who buy young girls to have sex with them. How much is there to say about people like that? The most nuanced and interesting male character here is #2 man Vaughn (Matt O’Leary, who’s having a spectacular run with Eden, Fat Kid Rules the World, and Natural Selection), an ex-Mennonite drug addict who seems to have stumbled into the only job he’s capable of doing. He doesn’t like it, always, and his hair-trigger temper seems always on the edge of an explosion, but he accepts the ugliness of his job with a grim detachment born of a desperate desire to succeed, if nothing else in his life, at this one thing. Griffiths uses the captive Eden and the captor Vaughn as to explore two people both wrestling with moral dilemmas: Eden has to make morally questionable choices in order to survive, but Vaughn, up to his neck in this unsavory job, has to make moral choices as well.

It’s Chung, though, who grabs at your heart and won’t let go, from her first frame as a cute, slightly rebellious, Asian-American teenager with an innocent smile and braces, through her terror at being abducted, her gradual surface acceptance of her fate, and her fierce determination to find a way out when all the other girls around her have long since given up hope. Eden is a solid entry on Griffiths’ already impressive resume, and hopefully will also get Chung enough attention that someone will realize she’s a terrific young actress and give her more roles.

2 Responses to “SIFF 2012 Review: Eden”

  1. E says:

    The movie’s unforgettable. I think your analysis of Vaughn is good, that
    he’s trying to succeed at one thing in his life. He is a character who seems to have buried his past from himself. It’s undoubtedly a painful past. Since many of the scenes are between Vaughn and ‘Eden’ – I couldn’t help put think of Adam and Eve. In the story, Adam creates Eve and she is to blame for EVERYTHING even though she does nothing wrong (she eats a freakin apple). It’s one of the first stories in our culture where men (and God) treat women unfairly and this cycle evolves into brutality, and can probably not go any farther than the situation ‘Eden’ is in as a victim of human trafficking (however, women are also involved in that network of evil, so it’s not that simple).

    Jamie Chung’s transformation is incredible – I can’t even think about the film without the emotions of it coming back, without the sense of Eden’s emotional arc and the contrast of who she was and who she becomes searing me. Everyone should see this film.

  2. J Foster says:

    I was disappointed with this film. The plot seemed to meander, and it just didn’t seem very engaging.

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