For 44 minutes I was ridden with guilt. Not because I felt culpable for any of the wretched, revolting acts on display in “Eden,” a based-on-a-true-story tale chronicling one woman's nightmare of sexual slavery. It was because I thought I was going to have to give this movie a bad review. And how could I, a good liberal, not champion this shocking story of patriarchal oppression? How could I, a human being, not at least open my arms to Chong Kim (Jamie Chung), a teenage Korean-American kidnapped and subjected to two years of mental and physical torture, and hold her in the warm embrace of the only thing I could possibly grant her, an uptick on her Rotten Tomatoes percentage?
Thankfully, at the half-way mark, the movie shook off its odd tonal dissonance – an unflattering mixture of afterschool special tsk-tsking mixed with lurid exploitation – and became a fascinating portrait and a good story. It is with much relief, therefore, that I can look you in the eye and say that “Eden” is a unique and thought provoking picture on a subject that ought to send you into a good old fashioned blood-boiling rage.
We open in 1994, so when the smooth talker in the firefighter's uniform has to stop his car to make a call at a payphone it isn't as much of a red flag as the fact that he's also got a police uniform with a different name on the badge. Chong Kim, the daughter of hardworking grocers who's out for an innocent night of underage flirting, never has a chance. Before the young woman knows what hit her, she's bound and gagged and waking up in a storage facility deep in the desert.
Living in container units are about three dozen women wearing nothing but underwear and ankle monitors. They are cuffed and dragged around to porno shoots and hotels and private homes. It's unclear if the johns are aware of the non-volunteer nature of the prostitution, though some of the girls are clearly under the age of 18 (some are so young that, even though nothing explicit is shown with them and you know the footage to be faked, it's still enough to make you queasy).
The first half of “Eden” repeatedly bangs this nightmare chord. Frankly, if it weren't for the “based on a true story” opening card, many scenes might remind you of exploitation films in the ilk of “Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S.” Since there is that pivotal disclaimer, all you do is feel horrible and want to warn all teenage girls to never even think of talking to a man at a bar. Then the twist comes.
As Chong -- now called Eden -- gets used to her indignity, she starts slipping into routine. She recognizes that Svetlana, another of the girls that is closer to 20 than 15, kisses up to the bosses (played by Matt O'Leary and Beau Bridges). As such, she gets to wear a silk nightgown, own a cat and keep the jewelry impounded from the other girls. Chong's lifetime at the grocery shop gave her a mind for figures, and soon she's helping the constantly stoned O'Leary with the books and giving him tips to maximize profit.
Out of nowhere “Eden” turns into “GoodFellas,” with Chong Kim as Henry Hill, willing to rat out her friends to help her secure an even more lenient attitude from her keepers. The key thing is, we're never quite sure just how much of it is true Stockholm Syndrome, if the environment has awakened a nastiness inside of her, or if she's really working a master plan for liberation.
As a result, each moment of the film's second half is fraught with tension, keeping you in a true grip. The unknowable characters grow even richer as you try to figure out how they can suddenly be so chummy, knowing what they've put this woman through. We also regard the group's sole woman enforcer – an emotionless physician – as a potential harbinger of our lead's future.
The film's resolution is exhilarating and rewarding, with multiple thrilling sequences. Labeling any of this entertainment, of course, brings my guilt full circle. Putting faces, names and familiar domestic locations to the vile world of sex slavery is such a profoundly upsetting endeavor that to recommend you “check this one out” just feels inappropriate. Nevertheless the remarkable storytelling that eventually emerges in “Eden” is something you should see, providing you feel that you can stomach it.
"Eden" opens at Film Forum tomorrow.