SXSW 2012 Review: ‘Eden’ Is a Family Friendly Look at Sex Slavery in America Highlighted By a Strong, Heartfelt Lead Performance

Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung) is an eighteen year old Korean-American girl who works at her parents’ store during the day and occasionally sneaks off for fun with friends at night. Her latest nocturnal jaunt sees her in a bar with a fake ID, a belly full of booze and the attention of a kind-looking off-duty fireman. She accepts a ride from him but quickly discovers her trust was poorly placed.

She’s kidnapped, driven a good distance away to an undisclosed location and forced to work alongside other young women as sexual entertainment for bastards with a bankroll. This becomes her new life, and as the weeks, months and years pass she discovers a part of her willing to do just about anything to survive.

More than that, she discovers that she’s willing to sacrifice others if it means her life will be made that much easier. It’s a harsh reality to face, that you’d hurt others to save yourself, and in a fictional story it makes for a fascinating character flaw.

But in a true story? It’s potentially devastating.

Co-writer/director Megan Griffiths’ Eden is based on a true story of a young woman who was abducted in the mid-nineties and held prisoner for several years. The details of her story have reportedly been altered somewhat for this fictional narrative, but the core of her story and struggle remain the same. She was kidnapped, brutalized, held captive for years and forced to perform at illegal and legal functions alike. We expect to see them used strictly as sex receptacles in back alleys and hidden rooms, but the film opens viewers’ eyes a bit when the girls are brought to a college fraternity party as entertainment. It’s a hidden slice of America that may exist more in the open than we want to believe.

Oddly, but thankfully, for a film about the terrors of human trafficking Eden is surprisingly glossy and more implied than explicit. The abuses and sexual expectations heaped upon the girls are hinted at but never shown, and even their general appearance makes them look more like an American Apparel ad than a group of sexually abused prisoners. That’s potentially a negative if viewed as a shying away from the truth, but Griffiths presumably realizes that we don’t need to see abuse and degradation to know they exist. Watch Kevin Kline’s Trade for an equally effective but far more brutal look at the subject.

One of the big reasons those explicit details aren’t needed here comes from a surprising place… Chung’s lead performance is a powerfully impressive revelation. She’s been little more than a pretty face and sexy body from her days on MTV’s Real World through recent films like Sucker Punch and Sorority Row (and she was the best thing about the otherwise abysmal The Hangover Part II), but Eden represents the first time that her acting talents have really been front and center. The 28 year old actress sells her character as a braces-wearing teen, a timid and terrified captive and young woman determined to survive at any costs.

It’s that last bit that serves as the film’s real hook. When Hyun Jae, renamed Eden by her captives, realizes that working with them ensures her safety and exclusion from the truly despicable assignments she makes that move without hesitation. It’s easy to casually judge her action, but it’s impossible to put ourselves in her shoes.

Some aspects of the film don’t work as well including Beau Bridges as a shifty US Marshall connected to the human trafficking ring. He’s not a subtle actor, and his somewhat cartoonish ways stand out in such a somber film. Also unfortunate is the film’s lack of follow-up text  before the end credits roll. For a true story, even one with facts changed for various reasons, there’s a lot left unanswered that may frustrate and annoy viewers.

Eden is a strongly acted (Bridges aside) look at a terrible reality, and while it pulls punches visually it never shortchanges viewers of the emotional impact. Chung sells the trauma, but she also makes a compelling and convincing case for her character’s actions in the name of survival. Would you do the same to save your own skin? Hopefully that’s a question you’ll never be forced to answer.

The Upside: Jamie Chung surprises and impresses with a convincingly emotional performance; the nastiness of the situation is more implied than explicit

The Downside: For a true story too many questions are left unanswered in the end; Beau Bridges plays the role a bit too big

On the Side: Eden won the Audience Award in the Narrative category at this year’s SXSW

Grade: B

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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