Taking a head-on approach to subject matter few films dare to contemplate even from a distance, “Children of the Dark” is a compelling, disturbing thriller set in the twilight world of child prostitution in Thailand. In this adaptation of a novel by Korean-Japanese author Yan Sogil, helmer Junji Sakamoto’s outrage is never in doubt, but his graphic depictions of abuse raise serious ethical questions about the use of child actors in such confrontational scenes. An iffy export proposition that will have censorship issues in many markets, the well-made pic has done steady biz in limited domestic release since Aug. 2.
Originally sent out on just seven screens in Japan with a PG-12 rating, “Children” received a B.O. boost mid-September when Thai authorities demanded its withdrawal from the Bangkok Film Festival on the grounds that it did not “fit with Thai society.” Media hoopla sparked long ticket queues and release subsequently expanded to as many as 102 screens. Appearances at the Karlovy Vary and Hawaii fests remain the film’s only official offshore playdates thus far.
Story tracks the trade through the eyes of Nanbu (Yosuke Eguchi), a middle-aged Japanese journalist stationed in Thailand. Chasing a story about a rich Japanese couple planning to bring their son to Bangkok for a life-saving transplant using illegally obtained organs, Nanbu comes into contact with fellow expat Keiko (Aoi Miyazaki), an idealistic young foreign-aid worker helping at a child welfare center run by fiercely committed local woman Napapom (Prima Ratchata).
Info gathered from poor local families and Nanbu’s shady contacts leads them to a brothel in the northern province of Chiang Rai, which supplies children for sex tourists and as “donors” of body parts. Pointedly, the establishment’s pedophile customers are drawn from a wide range of nationalities.
The vision of life inside the brothel is heartbreaking. Victims are locked in filthy rooms and let out only when clients arrive; those with AIDS are thrown into garbage trucks while still alive. Hardest to watch are scenes of children being placed in the same shot as clients in the lead-up to and aftermath of sexual encounters. These non-pornographic images are undeniably powerful, but one cannot help but worry about their lasting effects on the young performers.
Swiftly paced throughout its long duration, the densely plotted tale builds to a suspenseful climax. The only really jarring notes are the overplaying of Keiko’s naivete to the point of annoyance and a needlessly sensational final twist.
With strong perfs across the board and unfussy camerawork instilling documentary-like immediacy, pic has its troublesome aspects but largely succeeds in its primary aim of speaking loudly and fiercely about unspeakable realities. Tech credits are polished.