In 1994 a young Korean American woman living in New Mexico, Hyun Jae (Jaime Chung), who is on a streak of rebellion from her parents, sneaks her way into a bar with a fake license for a night of partying with her friend. Looking very youthful, mouth full of braces, and on the cusp of innocence where she’s starting to learn about the ways of the world as she enters her late teens, Hyun meets a young firefighter (Scott Mechlowicz) at the bar.
Drinks are consumed and as it turns late he offers her a ride home. Hyun accepts only to find out he’s not what he seems to be. She is abducted, thrown into a trunk, and forced into a life of slavery alongside a dozen other young women. Locked in an underground bunker with a small group of captors who dehumanize them by forcing them into sexual slavery and by giving them new names, Hyun becomes Eden. While this sounds completely outrageous, Eden is based on the true story of one Chong Kim, who worked with director Megan Griffiths to tell her compelling, heart wrenching story of human trafficking in hopes that it would open people’s eyes to what is happening in our own borders, and the result is quite shocking.
An important part of her captivity that Kim wanted addressed in the film is the relationship between her and her captors, and the one she deals with the most, Vaughn (Matt O’Leary). He is assigned the task of handling the girls directly and hauls them, cuffed in the back of a white van, to the various appointments with clients. The appointments are never explicitly shown by Griffiths, and for good reason. It’s already easy to understand how hellish the situation these women are in, and her carefully chosen shots of Eden at her first appointment, where she is handcuffed in a room about to be whipped, is horrific enough without being exploitative. In particular, a scene at a fraternity house which only shows the backs of a group of cheering college boys is much more harrowing than what could possibly be shown.
Throughout these trips, Eden develops a sort of friendship with Vaughn, a young, wiry man who seems to have little respect for the women he has captured unless they help his rise through the organization. There is a subtle Stockholm syndrome feel to what transpires between the two, seeming like Eden almost feels sorry for Vaughn when he makes a mistake, but it also allows her to work her way up the ladder in the organization gaining her more freedom.
The entire film firmly hangs on Chung’s performance and she more than delivers, giving a headstrong performance that shows both a gentle and soft side early on that slowly transforms over the span of her captivity into a strong willed woman before she finally escapes. She plays well alongside O’Leary, who had a strong showing not only in Eden but also at another SXSW feature this year, Fat Kid Rules the World. Also featured in the film is Beau Bridges, who has one of the highlight scenes of the film early on, playing Sheriff Gault, a law enforcement officer.
Unbelievably shot in Washington state, Eden perfectly captures the feel of being in the desert of the Southwest, a testament to director Griffiths and her cinematographer Sean Porter. Eden both elicits a continuous feeling of dread and hope, showing us a side of America you could not imagine existed. The idea of human trafficking always seems to be a thing that happens in the third world and it’s a testament to Chong Kim to allow such a personal story to be told.
Griffiths does justice to the subject, giving us a realistic look at one girl’s tribulations through some horrendous situations in a non-exploitative manner that still makes one cringe. Eden is the type of film that is important for its subject matter and also one that is very well put together with a stellar cast giving very human, believable performances. It won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at SXSW and Chung was awarded Special Jury Recognition for her performance. No word on whether it has been picked up yet, but here is to hoping it does so more people can see Chung’s powerful performance and that Eden gets its message out to the public.