Editor’s Note: Eden opens in limited release tomorrow, March 20th
Flooding the frame with an invasive light as disorienting to the viewer as it is to the eponymous protagonist, bound and gagged within the trunk whose opening facilitates this onslaught of brightness, Eden begins precisely as it means to continue, thrusting us into the physical and psychological space of this character from the onset. She is a teenaged Korean-American kidnapped while partying on a fake ID, adopted into a sprawling network of sexual slavery, and given this ironically paradisiacal sobriquet in place of her true identity. Megan Griffiths’ film, rooted in a true story, follows her through the ensuing year as prostitution and exploitation become the basis of her life and—determined to find some reprieve from this existence—begins to worm her way into the confidences of her captors.
Griffiths makes of this a distressing lesson in the way such enterprises are allowed to thrive, the shock value of such a revelation granting her a prime platform to drive this harrowing message home.
Set more often in the picturesque confines of an affluent suburb than a dingy motel, Eden’s most interesting facet is its postulation of the sex trade as not some seedy underground establishment, but a high-end service rolled out to frat parties and businessmen. Griffiths makes of this a distressing lesson in the way such enterprises are allowed to thrive, the shock value of such a revelation granting her a prime platform to drive this harrowing message home. It’s a curious thing to wish a film would be crueller to its protagonist, but it’s precisely the mannerly approach Eden adopts that withholds its intended effect. A film that deals with subject matter quite so repulsive should never be easy to watch, yet that’s precisely what this is, its sharp edges neatly filed away, the more gruesome aspects of the story allowed to occur off-screen, their effect dulled by the comparative ease of only having to imagine they occur. That the film’s most wince-worthy scene portrays violence against one of the business’ “customers” is an irreconcilable issue; it’s the treatment of these girls that should disturb us, not the ills that befall those who exploit them.
Her lips sealed shut with fear, Jamie Chung channels the initial innocence and resultant terror of Eden through her eyes alone, never allowing her often wordless presence—and all the latent emotions she carries—to go unnoticed. The progress from this paralytic performance to one of gradually escalating assurance is the crux of the narrative, Eden’s evolution that of the film itself as her journey from exploited teen to—albeit in a severely limited sense—empowered adult enacts a disturbingly unnatural coming-of-age tale. It’s in this that Griffiths primes her weightiest thematic material, Eden’s move toward self-preserving complicity intended as a morally contentious difficulty for us as viewers. Again, it’s a fascinating feature of the film done a disservice in the story’s unwillingness to commit to contextualising the character’s desperation. The monumental importance of Eden’s quandary is dulled in the film’s inability to make palpable the horror of the life to which she has been subjected.
Such is the lyricism of her visual storytelling, in fact, that often it fulfils the functions failed by the plotting: neither the dialogue nor the construction of the scenes ever quite evince Eden’s mentality; it’s Griffiths’ compositions that allow us to understand her motivations.
What flaws expose themselves in Griffiths’ writing can’t derail a film so well handled, though; she is a remarkable directorial talent, her visual palette commanding the attention from the very first frame. That burst of light which perforates the pre-existent darkness of the screen is as a herald to the aesthetic achievements to come of Griffiths’ direction. She manipulates the waning glow of the evening sun to render her exteriors in resplendent light, the freedom they represent a stark contrast to the garish industrial space these girls call home. Such is the lyricism of her visual storytelling, in fact, that often it fulfils the functions failed by the plotting: neither the dialogue nor the construction of the scenes ever quite evince Eden’s mentality; it’s Griffiths’ compositions that allow us to understand her motivations.
That it never truly comes to consider them in a meaningful manner doesn’t mean the questions Eden raises cease to exist. They are the foundation of the film, the unalterable root of its narrative; disappointing though their later treatment may be, it’s to be commended that Griffiths commits herself to tackling issues of such importance. She emerges best at the other side of the film, it serving largely as a showcase of her talents in visual characterisation and as a director capable of bringing out the best from her cast. With the work she garners from Chung, not to mention an impressively sinister Beau Bridges, she creates a story of consistent dramatic engagement and terse thrills. As much as it may fail to satisfy on a deeper level, being an acknowledgement of issues rather than an assessment, it’s an accomplished piece of work to the last.
[notification type=”star”]71/100 ~ GOOD. With the work she garners from Chung, not to mention an impressively sinister Beau Bridges, Griffiths creates in Eden a story of consistent dramatic engagement and terse thrills.[/notification]