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Eden is a film about Hyun Jae (played superbly by Jamie Chung), an eighteen year old Korean-American who is kidnapped by an extensive human trafficking ring and forced into prostitution. It takes place in in 1994 and is based on the true story of Chong Kim, a former victim of sex slavery who is now an outspoken activist against human trafficking.
Hyun Jae is the shy and sheltered daughter of hard-working Korean immigrants who run a restaurant called “Garden of Eden.” She helps her parents run their business, and her only rebellion is sneaking out in the back to smoke cigarettes. One day, Hyun’s friend Abbie (Tracey Fairaway) convinces her to go to a bar after work. Hyun’s mother begrudgingly relents after getting assurance from Hyun that she’ll be back by ten o’clock and will spend the entire Saturday cleaning the restaurant.
Once at the bar, Hyun meets a charming fireman who introduces himself as Jesse (Scott Mechlowicz) and who seems quite taken in by Hyun, despite her braces and awkwardness. He plies her with alcohol and offers to take her home, but Hyun never makes it home. Instead, she gets sold to her traffickers and is renamed “Eden.”
The next several scenes show Hyun’s new environment. We see the warehouse where the (mostly twelve-to-sixteen-year-old) girls, victims, slaves are housed. We see the locked storage compartments where they sleep on bunk beds, four to a room. We see the hallway where they line up every day – each one dressed in a grey tank top and grey panties. We see the communal shower room. We see their daily rituals: shower three times a day and after sexual intercourse, dry off with identical grey towels, wait in line for a daily pregnancy test. The warehouse is grey, cold, and unyielding as steel.
Filmmakers Griffiths and Phillips do not throw Hyun and the audience head-on into the midst of the horrors, the blood, the sweat, the fear, the pain of forced prostitution. No, they fan the flames. The film is completely void of sexual or nude scenes; violent scenes are rare and used only to make a point. We all know what happens to these girls. The girls themselves know what will happen to them. As the traffickers torture their victims by strumming their fear and anxiety of what is to come, the filmmakers make sure the audience feels the girls’ growing dread. Through intimate close-ups of Hyun’s face, we feel her fears and we experience the horror of her situation. We empathize with her. It is through the day-to-day rituals and details that Griffiths and Phillips are able to make the world of sex trafficking not some extreme statistic, but hit very close to home.
The head traffickers running the organization, the menacingly icy Bob Gault (Beau Bridges) and the troubled, psychotic, and meth-addicted Vaughn (Matt O’Leary) keep the girls in check by manipulation, violence, rape, and… kittens. Although Chong Kim told me that there were never any kittens during her experience as a sex slave, I find their inclusion in the film by Griffiths and Phillips very interesting.
Bob Gault gives each of the girls a kitten, to teach them the “responsibility of caring for a living animal that is dependant” on them. I cannot help but think this is just another tactic to create fragmentation of personality and dissociative disorder in the victims.
Bob Gault is the guy at the top of this operation. The CEO, so to speak. He runs his business without emotion, with cool-headed calculation. The operation runs like a well-oiled and finely-tuned machine: the cover, the precautions set in place for potential flare-ups, the security, the systemization of every aspect of the girls’ lives. It’s as if he was churning out plastic dolls, or computers, or chairs, any other conceivable inanimate object. It just so happens his product is human beings.
In addition to being a shrewd businessman, Bob Gault also does a little bit of law enforcement on the side: he is a high ranking law enforcement official in Nevada. He regularly speaks out about the horrors of human trafficking and even holds seminars for police officers on how to spot traffickers. Bob is a well-respected and dearly beloved pillar in his “official” community.
In addition to providing Bob with an enormous amount of protection and a smoke screen, his position in law enforcement also makes it that much harder for the victims to escape. He has access to all of their official information. When Hyun is declared a missing person, the report filed by her parents goes directly to Bob. He sweetly tells her that he knows everything about her parents: where they live, where they work, their names, and their phones numbers. A false move on her part, and their lives are in jeopardy.
I can only imagine what this sense of complete and utter entrapment and the realization that no one can or will help you – not even those whom you are taught to trust – does to your psyche. I can only imagine how it must feel to have your soul crushed and suffocated by this barren hopelessness. What it feels like to stare into the eyes of evil and be mocked by the cold and lifeless gaze that is returned you. This is what happens when the world places objects above people.
It is a testament to Hyun, and her real-life counterpart Chong Kim, that she is able to find the strength within herself to navigate and manipulate her captors in order to eventually free herself. However, the vast majority of victims are never that lucky. Most of these girls die, either as a result of their horrendous circumstances, or because their captors eventually murder them after they are no longer useful – they are, after all, “only a f***ing person, not a hundred dollar bill.” In the United States alone, over 50,000 women and children are trafficked as sex slaves. Human trafficking is a global epidemic, and it occurs in the First World as well as the Third.
One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about this film is that it’s too cinematic, too entertaining, and not documentary-style enough. However, I feel this is Eden’s strong point. This is not a film that attempts to “flesh out” or “bring to light to” or “put a face on” a statistic. It is a film that turns a middle-class American life into the statistic, implicitly daring you to ask yourself “what if that was me?” You are not being asked to wrap your head around a far-off statistic. Rather, you are being guided through, step by step, what it feels like to be in such a situation. That is an important distinction to make, and I think that is why this film is so incredibly powerful and gut-wrenching.
Eden is so well-written, so well-directed, and so well-acted that I feel kind of like a jerk for not focusing more on the considerable talents and dedication of the artists involved. But then again, what better compliment can I give than to say that this film transcends the confines of a script, a storyboard, a mastered acting technique, and the screen – and starts to breathe with a life of its own?
Chong Kim is a remarkable woman who inspires admiration and strength. She is coming out with a book about her story,“Broken Silence,” later this year. She is the Director of Public Awareness at Breaking Out Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on human trafficking and providing resources to human trafficking victims. Kim is also the founder of MASIE (Minorities and Survivors Improving Empowerment). She has been able to turn her experience in the depths of hell into something that can help others, something that can create miracles in the future.
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Chong Kim is writing a book about her experience, and we can stop sex slavery and human trafficking. Her book will be self-published, and she is running a campaign for the finishing funds. If you are interested in donating to her campaign, please follow this link: Chong Kim Book – Go Fund Me.