If you’ve heard about Game of Thrones, you’ve probably heard about ‘torture porn’. And as Charlotte Rowland argued in her review of Compliance earlier this year, the line between exploring gender violence on screen and exploitation is tricky to negotiate.
Eden, a recent film by Megan Griffiths , explores internal sex trafficking in the US. It is based on the true story of Chong Kim – a Korean American who was kidnapped and enslaved in a prostitution ring in 1994, escaping two years later. Even if the issues raised in the film interest you, you might be put off, as a potential viewer, by the thought that you will be subjected to graphic scenes of a potentially triggering nature.
Yet Eden is no Complianceor Game of Thrones. In fact, it manages to make a horrific subject matter very compelling and watchable, relying on powerful performances from the lead actors that focus on the victims’ psychology and the creepy rituals of the perpetrators.
From the start, lead character Hyun-Jae, played by Jamie Chung, is endearing and competent: an 18-year-old Korean American who helps her family run the accounts at their local shop. But the bubble in which her protective parents raise her is shattered when one night, after breaking her 10 pm curfew in a local bar, she is charmed and promptly kidnapped by a handsome young man posing as a fireman.
Hyun-Jae, given the alias “Eden” after the trailer park she lived in with her parents, is then exchanged like cargo in a drug deal and taken to a secret prostitution compound far in the deserts of LA, run by a corrupt federal marshal played with antisocial insouciance by Beau Bridges. After discovering dark truths about what happens to the girls after they reach 19, she quite ruthlessly carves out a career as a madam within the organisation in order to survive and get enough power to escape. She does this by manipulating her pimp Vaughan (Matt O’Leary), a troubled drug addict who she helps keep track of the company finances.
I definitely wanted to be sure to show the faces of the demand side–those men who pay for these girls, knowingly or not
The screenplay carefully develops connections between racial and sexual exploitation in the US. Within the compound, a strict racial hierarchy is enforced: white girls – the most difficult to ‘disappear’ within the country’s border control systems – cost the most, girls from ethnic minorities or immigrants cost the least. Part of Hyun-Jae’s sexual appeal to her customers is a forced fake identity as a submissive Chinese girl, complete with a thick foreign accent. The customers appear to feel more comfortable if the sex workers seem as foreign as possible – a US citizen servicing them is a turn-off.
Q&A with Megan Griffiths
It is the sensitivity of the writing by Chong Kim and Rick Phillips and directing by Megan Griffiths that makes Eden a success and not a simple shock attack. I interviewed Griffiths, who has been directing a smart independent cinema for over decade, via email asking her to elaborate on some of the questions about immigration, power and sexual exploitation that the film so poignantly raises (original American spelling kept throughout).
What drew you to the project? The subject matter seems to be a lot darker than some of your earlier feature films. Was there something particular about Eden that made you want to direct it?
I was really drawn in by the characters and the complicated relationships, particularly between Eden and her captor Vaughan. I loved that Eden had to become her own hero – no one swept in and saved the day. She had to find some strength within herself and tap into her own resources to survive. Also, I think it’s an important issue and that fact that girls (and boys) are being trafficked within our own borders – not just in lands far, far away – is something that more people need to be aware of.
As a co-writer, how and why did you choose to veer away from Chong Kim’s experiences? For example, she was kidnapped and sold by her boyfriend, not a total stranger, as in the film. Was there a reason for moving away from this (potentially more traumatic) plot point?
The original script was written by Rick Phillips, who collaborated with Chong for two years to mine the screenplay from her story. They made the majority of those decisions before I became involved, but it was my understanding that they did so to remove the film one step from Chong’s experience. She was sharing a lot of details about a very difficult part of her life, and discussing people who were potentially still at large, so changing names and details was important to her.
We talked at every stage of how to navigate that fine line between depicting the horrific realities and unintentionally tipping into showing something that could be construed as titillating or overly sexualized
Your cast were all excellent. Jamie Chung in particular gave a really compelling performance. How did you choose and assemble your cast?
Jamie’s name came up very early in the casting process, as the character is Korean American and Jamie’s one of the more prominent Korean American actors working today. I wasn’t familiar with her previous work, but her agent sent some clips that were compelling. Jamie wasn’t going to be in LA when we (myself and the producer Colin Plank) went for auditions–she was working on a film in San Francisco. But she had read the script and was committed to reading for it, so she flew herself to Seattle (where we’re based) to audition for us and completely blew us away. That happened right before our LA trip and we went down thinking, well, if someone can top that it will be surprising. And no one could.
Matt O’Leary [who plays Vaughan, above – AO] came along in the final weeks of prep. We had been working with another actor for the role, who ended up having to drop out. After an emergency LA casting trip, we discovered Matt, who was shooting another film in Seattle that summer (Fat Kid Rules the World). He came in and read and had exactly the kind of volatility and unpredictability that I was hoping to find in Vaughan. We cast him and he only ended up having about 48 hours off between the two films. I was incredibly impressed with his ability to shift gears and so quickly inhabit Vaughan.
Beau Bridges was someone we loved for the role of Bob Gault from an early stage. Beau has that natural amiability and charm that really helped sell the character as a person who could operate between two worlds. I think Beau really responded to the idea of playing someone who was able to justify such evil deeds and still see himself as some sort of hero.
One of the things I most admired about Eden was how you veered away from showing ‘torture porn’, given that the subject matter might have drawn other directors to do just that (like in the scene where men at a party all bang the doorframe on their way to the prostitutes). Was this an important decision in the way you chose to build the narrative?
Definitely. We talked at every stage of how to navigate that fine line between depicting the horrific realities of this kind of scenario, and unintentionally tipping into showing something that could be construed as titillating or overly sexualized. We were really conscious of this line throughout prep, production and post. I always wanted to make a film that didn’t shy away from the horrors, but allowed viewers to fill in some of the details on their own and not be forced to cover their eyes or be given an excuse to walk out.
An important aspect of Chong Kim’s story is that her boyfriend burned all her ID papers to make her seem an illegal immigrant. Do you think the fact that Hyun Jae is a Korean American made her more vulnerable to trafficking, although she is a US citizen?
From what I’ve gathered in my research, there are several factors that can make someone a more attractive target for traffickers. Recent immigrant status, or in Chong’s case being able to be painted as an illegal immigrant, can definitely make someone vulnerable. Girls who come from very low income families and runaways are also frequent targets, from what I’ve read.
Having an open dialogue about the supply and demand of the sex trade and how we as a society are facilitating it may be the only way to shine a light on what can be done to stop it
Do you feel that the film suggests rich white American men who pay for prostitution with girls as young as 12 are equally or perhaps more to blame for these crimes than the traffickers?
There is plenty of blame to go around, but all too often it’s the women at the center of this issue that are punished and prosecuted. I definitely wanted to be sure to show the faces of the demand side – those men who pay for these girls, knowingly or not. If there were no men willing to spend the money for sex with these underage girls, there would be no industry, so I think it’s very important to focus some of our attention on that. I wanted to make sure to show these men not as comic villains who were easy to write off, but as people the audience could recognize, who could be their uncle, their dentist, their college boyfriend. Our society has a very ‘boys will be boys’ attitude about men paying for sex, but it would be irresponsible to ignore the part this plays in the perpetuation of the sex trade.
You show how corrupt federal marshal, Bob Gault, is central to the running of the trafficking organisation, and how the disturbed Vaughan was indoctrinated in the US army. Were you making an explicit link between hegemonic power and the exploitation of the immigrant classes and vulnerable women/children?
There was definitely a connection being made between the training someone receives in the armed forces (either in the US in Vaughan’s case, or in other countries in the cases of the other “muscle” at the trafficking facility) and their ability to dehumanize these women. Soldiers must be trained to “other” their opponents and see them as categorically wrong in order to function in the capacity they are asked to. That kind of training would prepare someone well to work in a facility like the one we depict in this film. So that connection was intended. But I also wanted to show that a soldier, even if trained to ignore their conscience, may still experience doubt, as Vaughan does.
Do you think the human trafficking situation in the US has changed since the mid-1990s, when the film is set? Do you feel that films like yours can make an impact on the situation?
I think that the sex trade in general has only grown larger and more insidious since the time these events happened to Chong. I think spreading awareness of problems such as these has a huge impact on finding a solution. Having an open dialogue about matters such as the supply and demand of the sex trade and how we as a society are facilitating it and tacitly accepting it may be the only way to shine a light on what can be done to stop it.
What’s the next for you? Any new films in the running?
I am in the final stages of a completely new film entitled Lucky Them, which stars Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church and Oliver Platt. It’s a much different film from Eden, much lighter and more comedic. After dwelling in the kind of darkness that I did for the duration of Eden, it was refreshing to focus on some lighter fare.
All images courtesy of Maven Publicity.
Eden is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 9th September, courtesy of Clear Vision.
M. Lý-Eliot is a musician and poet, interested in 19th century Britain and East Asia. A keen cook, she blogs about her Vietnamese Vegetarian food adventures at thejadecave.wordpress.com