Eden (2012) is the name given to Hyun-Jae (Jamie Chung), an 18-year-old Korean-American teenager kidnapped and imprisoned in a sex slavery ring in the American southwest, in Megan Griffiths’s dramatization of the true story of Chong Kim (who collaborated on the screen story).
Hyun-Jae is held captive with dozens of other girls in what can only be described as an institutionally anonymous prison camp in the middle of the desert, transported to and from jobs with a numbing efficiency. Seattle filmmaker Griffiths shot the film in Eastern Washington, which makes for an effective stand-in for purposefully vague southwest badlands location and enhances the girls’ sense of dislocation from their former lives.
Griffiths refreshingly directs this potentially sensationalistic drama with low-key naturalism, suggesting the sexual degradation without putting the lurid details on screen. The emphasis is not on the sex but the slavery—being owned, controlled, and exploited in an atmosphere of hopelessness—and the way they normalize the monotony of forced sex work and the prison-like captivity out of necessity. This is a culture where clients and civilians alike turn a blind eye to their ordeal. Griffiths makes gripping drama from it all, thanks to an observant camera and nuanced characters.
Jamie Chung is superb as Hyun Jae / Eden, a young woman too old to satisfy the taste for underage girls but with a head for numbers and an intelligence that takes a mental calculation of every situation. She’s wary and emotionally guarded throughout her ordeal, but we can see her mentally calculate the odds of escape, and observe conflict behind her eyes as she weighs the moral toll of turning informer.
Matt O’Leary is increasingly compelling as a cog in the organization with delusions of advancement and Beau Bridges plays the crime kingpin with an affable front while making cold-blooded decisions on when and how to get rid of the girls once he’s used them up. It makes him all the more frightening.
It won three awards at South by Southwest Film Festival, including the Audience Award for best narrative feature.