Often the problem when making an "issue" movie, wherein you tackle some far-reaching social, systemic, or religious injustice, is that scope often becomes too burdensome, with the given topic often begging for thoughtful, intimate conversation and not the broad strokes that cinema offers. The best issue movies, things like Steven Soderbergh's multi-layered "Traffic," make the central concern seem both universal and incredibly personal, often setting aside crass moralization (the stuff "Crash" was mired in – hey, racism still exists, everybody!) for actual entertainment. "Eden," the Narrative Feature winner at SXSW, similarly tackles the issue of sex slavery, but it does so in a way that never feels too clumsy or overarching. Instead, it's a character study with thriller elements; it exposes you to a horrible underworld without ever beating you over the head with it.
The movie starts with us meeting Hyun Jae (former MTV personality Jamie Chung), a Korean-American who works in her parents' taxidermy shop in New Mexico. One night she goes out with a friend, and meets a nice firefighter. She decides to ride home with him, but while stopped at a gas station she looks in his back seat and sees a number of uniforms for different professions. It's a great "oh shit" moment, followed by a sequence that introduces Beau Bridges as Bob Gault, a U.S. marshal who is called to the scene of a dead body. The body is of a young girl, who has some kind of ankle bracelet. Gault asks the young policeman and the rancher who found the girl if they had told anyone else about this. They say no; so Gault shoots them both. These two sequences, back to back, are horrifying and incredibly suspenseful and they do a great job of setting the tone for the movie quite nicely. "Eden" may be a movie about the big issue of sex slavery but its savvy enough to play like a thriller (more than once you'll be reminded of last year's terrific, thematically similar Mexican film "Miss Bala").
Once Jae wakes up, she's in a sex slave compound, somewhere near Las Vegas. It's a sterile warehouse, populated by young girls (mostly underage) in virginal cream-colored underwear, lorded over by Gault and his crack-smoking number two, Jesse (Matt O'Leary, menacing and oddly funny). Girls are lined up in bunkers and checked for disease and illness and Jae is drugged and her braces are forcibly removed by someone who we're fairly sure doesn't have an orthodontic license. This nuts-and-bolts approach to the world of the sex slave trade eases you into the situation while most movies by this point would already have a metaphoric bright neon sign that said "ISN'T THIS AWFUL"? And it's a testament to the strength of Chung's performance, which justifiably earned her a Special Jury prize, that you go along with it completely. She's wide-eyed and confused and so are we. She's the new to the situation, and so we absorb the entire experience through her. If a lesser actress had filled the role, it would have been all weepy eyes and histrionics. Instead, she tries to approach the situation clinically as if saying, "What have I gotten myself into and how the fuck am I going to get myself out?"
After going on a disastrous "date" with Jae (now dubbed Eden by her captors, after the trailer park where she lives in New Mexico), where she bites the member off of her client and attempts to escape through the neighborhood, we flash ahead a year. Eden is still in the facility, still being examined. But she's determined now, steely, and is starting to understand the ins and outs of the company. Jesse likes to tell her that it's a well-organized machine, but she makes note that during their last gig he was being scammed. So he takes her under his wing, forming an uneasy alliance, eventually pulling her out of the "field" and having her work an office job, answering calls from clients and occasionally going out with him to make sure the bookkeeping is straight. In a way this is even worse because Eden is forced to watch, at a distance, as women she knows and has become friends with, are disposed of or, even worse, impregnated for the purposes of selling off their babies.
"Eden," co-written (with Richard B. Phillips) and directed by Megan Griffiths, is based on a true story (by Chong Kim), and it is nothing short of gripping. Maybe it's more palpable because a cursory Google search can turn up details about the real-life incident, we know that it has a fairly happy ending (if you can call it that), but it mostly has to do with Griffiths' staging of the events, which never veer into uncomfortable exploitation. Truthfully, there's a shockingly small amount of sex and even less nudity. Maybe more of that stuff would have added texture but it could have also bordered on the tastelessly titillating. Instead, Griffiths sticks with the thriller approach, and it works well. There's limited coverage of the Beau Bridges storyline, with just enough backstory given to the Jesse character (one of his comical/villainous threats: "I'm going to douse you in gasoline and light the fuse"). We're with Eden almost the entire time and get to know the sex slave farm with the intimacy that she does. "Eden" is remarkably streamlined, too. It's a period piece of sorts, taking place in the mid-1990s, so it's free of technological clutter, instead letting us focus on Eden and her single goal – to get free.
Some might argue with the movie's lack of context, but for an issue movie it's remarkably small and personal. It's telling the story of a single survivor and not the entire sex slave problem. And, again, it's back to Chung – with her expressive eyes and her body language, which says so much, she's able to fully inhabit the character. She even allows flashes of humor to shine through – while with a client she is forced to do a phony Asian accent that wouldn't sound out of place on a '70's variety show. "I'm from China," she purrs. Her client asks, "Oh really, what part of China?" He sounds genuinely interested and has probably traveled there on business. She shakes her head and says, "Just China." It's a moment of humor and humanity in a movie largely stripped of both. And it speaks to the power of Chung's performance (and the movie itself). "Eden" may be unpleasant, but it's not as grim as you'd imagine, and always compulsively watchable. If only all issue movies were this entertaining. [A-]