Published: March 19, 2013
Enough films about human trafficking have been made in recent years that the outlines of “Eden” should be painfully familiar. But that familiarity doesn’t cushion this movie’s excruciating vision of under-age women conscripted into sexual slavery by a criminal enterprise from which there is seemingly no escape.
You may call me naïve, but it is deeply upsetting that “Eden” is set in the United States and that the organization’s boss, Bob Gault (Beau Bridges), is a law-and-order-preaching United States marshal. We imagine this kind of crime flourishing in the shadows of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But in the United States, with a backslapping good old boy running the operation? Could it be?
The movie, directed by Megan Griffiths, is loosely based on the true story of Chong Kim, who was born in South Korea and moved to the United States as a toddler. As a teenager in the mid-1990s, she became a captive of the domestic sex trade. She eventually survived her ordeal and has become a crusader against human trafficking.
In the film she is a Korean-American teenager named Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung), who works in her parents’ New Mexico gift shop. She is picked up in a bar by a handsome, friendly young firefighter who offers her a ride home. Along the way, he makes a stop and exits the vehicle. Moments later she is kidnapped and drugged and has her identification and possessions confiscated.
Renamed Eden, she soon finds herself in a regiment of sex slaves, most of them immigrants, imprisoned under close guard in a converted storage facility. In a bizarre touch, each girl is given a tiny kitten to take care of.
The movie is frustratingly arbitrary in what it shows and what it leaves out. Although events are seen from Eden’s perspective, we are never given a clear picture of her daily routine. There is no nudity or explicit sex, although Eden’s clients — we see only two or three — graphically voice their demands.
Other sickening forms of brutalization are shown. The women are suspended from the ceiling and whipped. After an incident in which Eden viciously fights back a john and desperately tries to flee, she is handcuffed and thrown into a bathtub filled with ice cubes.
What human dimension there is concerns Eden’s ambiguous connection with Vaughan (Matt O’Leary), Gault’s bullied, drug-addicted assistant. He is a lost boy, and Eden solicits his trust by offering to help him in his various jobs. Before long they are de facto partners. He teaches her to drive his van, in which caged girls are ferried back and forth from the storage facility to a makeshift hospital and to bars where they are paraded before mostly white, middle-aged clients.
“Eden” leaves many details cloudy. We learn late in the film that the babies of the girls who become pregnant are sold. And it is suggested that by the age of 20, when a girl is considered to have outlived her commercial shelf life, she faces execution and burial in the desert. Shadowy international connections are referred to. At a certain point, the entire operation considers abruptly relocating to Dubai.
The movie is set in the kind of Southwestern outlaw territory found in the AMC series “Breaking Bad” and in “No Country for Old Men:” an arid, lawless no man’s land that looks as forbidding today as it did in the 19th century.
After watching “Eden,” you may worry that the cargo in any innocent-looking white van streaking down a highway may not be furniture and home appliances but a group of chained sex slaves being taken from one hell to another in a sadistic warlord’s fiendish underground network. That fantasy describes the residual chill the movie leaves behind. For the perpetrators in the film, human trafficking is no different from animal slaughter. It’s just business as usual.
“Eden” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has strong language, violence and sexual situations.