If you trust me to say “Go watch this intense crime drama, I thought it was excellent” without needing me to tell you anything else about it, then go do that. I’m awarding EDEN my controversial The Best Thing I’ve Seen Lately medal to encourage you. It came out on the DVD last week under the title ABDUCTION OF EDEN, but the title on screen and when it was playing film festivals was just EDEN. (I hear they had to change the cover and name for Redbox – artistic decisions now determined by vending machines. Today’s cinematic art must have the same wide appeal as Doritos or Chips Ahoy.)
Because of the new title we know there’s an abduction of some kind, and the movie opens with a girl crying, tied up in the trunk of a car (as crappily photoshopped on the generic DTV-looking cover). If you insist on knowing more than that then read on.
Jamie Chung plays Hyun Jae, a Korean-American teen in Arizona. She’s a smart girl, works at her parents’ shop, gets along with them well, does chores, also likes to sneak out with her friends, use fake IDs to get into bars. For most teens this would be harmless troublemaking, but this girl has bad fuckin luck. The guy who buys her drinks at the bar is a kidnapper.
Is this guy a psycho torturer? A ransomer? I thought this might be like THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED. No one will tell her what’s going on, and he brings her to a corrugated metal shed, like a cattle ranch or something, where a dozen or two other girls are penned up. There’s a doctor there with a questionable medical setup, there are hulking security guys and overseers, an operation that must’ve been going on for some time. They don’t really bother to explain to her that she’s a sex slave.
I hear the words “sex slave” and “white slavery,” I don’t really equate it to our nation’s shameful history of slavery. But this is kinda like that, she’s stolen from her family, locked up in a shed, forced to do horrible things all day against her will. They even give her a slave name, Eden.
Since her dad isn’t Liam Neeson she’s on her own. This is a survival story. She learns the ropes. She tries to escape. She suffers. She makes friends and enemies even though she’s not supposed to talk. The guy running the place, assistant to the big boss, is a young junkie with a droll indifference to their suffering. He looked familiar, and then I realized he was Matt O’Leary, who played a slightly more charming junkie in FAT KID RULES THE WORLD. (I didn’t realize it but I’d also seen him in MOTHER’S DAY, SORORITY ROW, DEATH SENTENCE, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, BRICK, SPY KIDS 2 and FRAILTY.) The character’s name is Vaughan, and it’s a great performance because he’s such a scumbag but I found myself laughing at him. The movie put me into a Stockholm Syndrome mentality. As she tries to impress him and get responsibilities in the organization in order to save herself I started feeling like I kinda felt sorry for the guy. I think she feels the same, so I loved the part where she’s snooping at his photos and seeing him in normal situations seems to humanize him, until she comes across one where he’s laughing with his arm around a buddy… and it’s the guy that abducted her.
Similarly, the movie made me share her resentment toward the boss’s pet snitch Svetlana (Naama Kates). But of course Svetlana is just a victim too, and Eden’s kinda taking her place at the boss’s side, aren’t they just as bad as each other? When (SPOILER) Svetlana’s bundled in a bed sheet you feel both Eden’s guilt and the necessity of being cold about it, not letting it get to her. She turns into a robot. She’s willing to turn on her sisters to help herself. And you understand it.
It’s a movie full of harrowing moments. One of the best comes early on, when she’s brought to a john’s house out in the suburbs. You get a nice glimpse of a framed family portrait on the wall, everybody smiling like dad’s not paying the mob to have sex slaves brought over. Vaughan waits in the other room, and next thing you know the john is screaming in terror and Eden is making a run for it with blood dripping down her chin. Vaughan has to make up a story to explain to the neighbors why he’s dragging away a bloody girl who’s screaming for them to help her. It’s that thing I like so much, the explosion of nightmarish mayhem in the middle of polite society. They got a look at what’s really going on but it was too terrifying for them to comprehend it or do anything about it.
It’s almost triumphant in its monstrous depiction of defiance against these horrible people. You lock me up, I bite your dick off. You cannot contain me. Except they can, and you know it, because this is much too early in the movie for her to get away.
Part of the genius of the movie is how it shows this world of atrocity intersecting with various seemingly not-as-bad crimes, like drug trafficking, etc. In one scene Eden and some girls are brought to a frat party. We don’t see what they have to do there – it’s probly more than just as strippers, but even so I’m sure these sleazy frat brothers don’t know they paid for kids that were kidnapped and locked in a barn. And probly wouldn’t like that.
There are a bunch of haunting performances and characters here. I’m particularly creeped out by “the Nurse” (Tantoo Cardinal), who seems to offer Eden something like kindness, but what the fuck lady, have you noticed what your job is? Does she really think she cares for these girls, or is it a put on to make her job easier? How did she get into this? Did she start out as one of them, maybe? Or somebody’s girlfriend or sister who got in too deep?
And Jamie Chung is outstanding. I didn’t actually realize it was her, because I only knew her from small, cartoonish roles. Here she seems like just a teenager, not a movie star. Unfortunately, being a young Asian actress this is not the first time she’s played a sex worker. As Amber in SUCKER PUNCH she was trapped in some sort of brothel, forced to dance for sleazy men, a PG-13 metaphor for something worse. As Lady Silk in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS she worked in another brothel, and although it’s a unique situation where the whores turn the tables on the johns it’s still a miserable life she’s trying to escape from. Even in the upcoming SIN CITY 2 she’ll be taking over Devon Aoki’s role as Miho, a ninja in a part of town run by prostitutes. All three movies side with the women, yet they show a colorful fantasy version of the sex trade. EDEN is about as far in the opposite direction as you could go. No glamour of any kind. No fun. No sexiness. And Chung comes alive as an actress. She runs through the gamut: terrified, terrorized, smart, strong, determined, cold, mean, angry, manipulative. A fascinating, three-dimensional portrait, that’s why I didn’t recognize her as Lady Silk.
Who knew Chung had it in her? I didn’t know she was that kind of actress (and I didn’t even know she started out on The Real World until I looked her up).
The director, Megan Griffiths, lives in Seattle, and it turns out this was shot around Washington state. But I promise you that doesn’t factor into my praise on this one. Griffiths’ earlier, more noticeably Seattle-based movie, THE OFF HOURS (co-starring a pre-ARGO and KILLING THEM SOFTLY Scoot McNairy) is well regarded around here, but I personally couldn’t get into it. I was more impressed when I found out she was first assistant director on WRONG TURN AT TAHOE.
I like that the score by Jeramy Koepping and Joshua Morrison is the type of spare guitar music that you would expect from a Seattle indie director. It’s a smart way to make such in-your-face horrors feel understated. Otherwise, nothing about this feels local to me.
There’s one thing I’m hesitant to bring up, but I feel like I should: the credits say this is based on the true story of a woman named Chong Kim, but in trying to find out how loosely or closely it’s based on the real story I could find no information other than what she has said in speaking engagements and interviews. Of course it’s fictionalized anyway but part of the movie’s shock value comes from this idea that here in America girls are being snatched out of bars and shackled in barns, also farmed for babies and maybe executed when they get older. If you read comments about it online you’ll see alot of people blown away by having their eyes opened to what’s going on right here in America. So you want to read about what happened when this missing girl was reunited with her parents years later, if she was able to lead the authorities to where they were keeping the others, if she gave them any information on the various murders that were depicted, if they ever exposed this beloved marshal that was running the operation (an FBI consultant in real life, Kim says). As far as I’ve been able to find there was none of that, she says this happened to her years ago and she didn’t tell anybody until much later. So whatever the real story is, it’s not documented.
Jesus man, they are selling babies in this movie. It’s pretty over-the-top. If you’re telling me that’s a true story you better give the cops everything you know on the location of the baby-selling. You better do more than just raise awareness at colleges.
I’ll go ahead and self-declare as an asshole for saying it. That would be shitty to accuse someone who went through any of that of being a liar, and even if they were it would just be more sadness. I wouldn’t feel the need to try to expose them. Also, that several people on the IMDb boards brought up similar suspicions does not put me in good company.
But I want to bring the possibility up pre-emptively because I would hate for that to become the big issue about this great movie. As far as the actual problem of sex trafficking in this country, we know for sure that there are scumbags called pimps, who are glorified in this culture, whose job is to find 13 year old molested runaways, get them hooked on drugs and force them to have sex with adults and then take their money and beat them up. I hope we can keep sight of what a bad thing this is even if a few of us suspect (naively?) that the more spectacular HOSTEL form of the business depicted here is an exaggeration.
And more importantly for our purposes here this is just an excellent piece of crime fiction, a deftly choreographed ride through hell, full of memorable characters, uncomfortable relationships and ratcheting tension. Maybe it’s a shocking exposé of horrors that have been going on right under our noses for years, but if not it’s powerful speculation about how something like that might work. It’s a hell of a scary story and it’s stuck with me for weeks and that’s good enough for me. I can’t recommend it enough.