Scrupulously avoiding salaciousness and overstatement, “Eden” translates a true-life tale of human trafficking into an effectively low-key, arrestingly suspenseful drama. Still, it may prove challenging to convince potential ticketbuyers that this handsomely lensed indie is something more substantial than a Lifetime woman-in-jeopardy telepic with R-rated language. Fest exposure could help — the pic earned an audience award for narrative feature, along with prizes for helmer Megan Griffiths and lead player Jamie Chung at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival — but critical buzz may have to be high-decibel to guarantee at least limited theatrical play.
On the other hand, a savvy distrib should be able to generate press coverage outside traditional print and digital entertainment sites by emphasizing the real events that inspired the screenplay co-written by Griffiths and Richard B. Phillips.
In 1994, Korean-American teen Hyun Jae (Chung) enters a New Mexico bar with a fake ID, in search of fun and frolic after another hard day of helping her immigrant parents run a small gift shop. Unfortunately, she leaves the bar with a smooth-talking Mr. Wrong and winds up imprisoned as a sex slave by an outfit operated by Bob Gault (Beau Bridges), a corrupt federal marshal.
“Eden” is at once discreetly elliptical and almost clinically specific in its depiction of Hyun Jae’s indoctrination and exploitation in the slave trade. Female nudity is conspicuous by its absence throughout the pic, but Griffiths methodically details how her lead character and other captive girls are imprisoned in a reconverted storage-unit center, routinely drugged by a coolly efficient nurse (Tantoo Cardinal) and intimidated into docility by the marshal’s minions.
At first, Hyun Jae, renamed Eden by her captor, rebels against being used for prostitution and porn films. (The pic strains credibility only when she’s not killed on the spot after maiming a would-be client and attempting to escape.) As time goes by, however, she dials down her defiance.
Driven by what appear to be equal measures survival instinct and Stockholm syndrome, she becomes a model employee, gaining sufficient trust so that she’s allowed to work as driver, telephone receptionist and, for all practical purposes, personal assistant to Vaughan (Matt O’Leary), the marshal’s second-in command.
“Eden” ratchets up the suspense through the skillful application of ambiguity, leaving the audience to wonder from scene to scene just how much Hyun Jae will play along to get along. Indeed, one scene teasingly suggests that she betrays two escaped girls to maintain her own position of trust. It’s a tribute to Chung’s subtle, multilayered performance that she maintains sympathy even when it’s not entirely clear how far she’s gone over to the dark side.
As the scruffy, mood-swinging Vaughan, a druggie whose own motives occasionally are opaque, up-and-comer O’Leary (from 2011 SXSW award winner “Natural Selection”) impresses and unsettles while indicating his character is never far from a violent outburst. When he does actually waylay someone, it almost comes as relief when he tells Hyun Jae that, hey, he didn’t lose his temper, he actually intended to do what he did.
Bridges makes the most of relatively limited screentime, just as his character makes the most of his resources as a marshal. Early on, Gault warns the girls not to put their families at risk by trying to escape. “I have your addresses,” he drawls. “I have everything.”
Pic’s final scenes veer perilously close to melodrama but do provide an undeniably satisfying emotional payoff. Production values are first-rate.