Jamie Chung gives the best performance of her career in Eden, an earnest, if one-note, drama about the evils of sex slavery that won the Narrative Feature Audience Award at SXSW.
Chung has had few opportunities to demonstrate her range as a dramatic actress in the years since she gained notice as a cast member of MTV's The Real World. Not only has she faced the expected stiff competition from a legion of attractive young actresses, but she also has to deal with Hollywood's reluctance, in general, to cast Asian-American actors for any character who is not, specifically, identified as an Asian or Asian-American.
Eden, based on a true story, is a good marriage of actress and character. Chung plays Hyun Jae, a shy Korean-American high school girl who wears braces and loves her parents. She has just a touch of a wild streak, though; she sneaks cigarettes behind her parents' place of business, and then sneaks out to a bar with her best friend, even though she's underage. Her innocent mischief leads to disaster when a good-looking firefighter picks her up; he's actually the front man for a well-organized gang of criminals who enslave young women for sex.
It's horrifying to watch the naive Hyun Jae as she is repeatedly degraded, along with a bevy of other girls and young women. Slowly she comes to terms with her imprisonment. It's not that she accepts her situation; she remains determined to do anything she can to avoid being forced to have sex with strangers. But she and the other women are locked up in storage rooms under guard from merciless men with guns, located in an isolated desert compound miles away from help. Would-be escapees are punished harshly; the oppressive treatment and subjugation gradually breaks the spirit of the women, who are slaves, treated worse than prisoners, without the recourse of a legal system.
There is no mistaking Eden for an exploitation movie. The most sordid details are omitted by director Megan Griffiths, working from a script credited to herself and Richard B. Phillips. The set-up is effective, creating empathy for Hyun Jae -- who becomes known as Eden after she's been enslaved for a while -- and making a powerful point about sex slavery in the U.S.
But after that point is made, Griffiths keeps making it, over and over again. All the male characters are heinous, from U.S. Marshal Bob Gault (Beau Bridges, casually villainous) to his drug-addicted #2 man Jesse (Scott Mechlowicz, in a very strong performance) to the anonymous guards to the anonymous men who pay for sex with the girls. (Most are underage, which adds multiple layers to the odious behavior of all the men.) There is no ambiguity, though there is the implication that a larger conspiracy is involved, one that allows and profits from the sex slave trade.
By focusing almost exclusively on Hyun Jae, Eden becomes the personal story of a survivor, more like an individual portrait than a group shot. The other women are reduced to background players, save for one who becomes friends with Hyun Jae, and another, a Russian woman, who has achieved a higher degree of status among the slaves.
The chosen approach allows the audience to identify more readily with Hyun Jae's trials, but also limits the scope of the movie, so that the same note -- sex slavery is evil -- is repeated multiple times, simply because there's not much else to say within that limited framework. Hyun Jae is kept in the dark about much that happens, and when she learns more, the details are interesting without being compelling. Without a larger picture to provide context, the narrative drive disappears.
It may be that Eden is exactly the kind of movie that is needed in order to draw attention to the issue of American sex slavery. Within the small canvas provided, Chung invests her character with dignity while internalizing a surfeit of fear, tension, and turmoil that occasionally boils to the surface. It's a splendid performance in an intimate drama.
Eden had its World Premiere at SXSW. In addition to the film wining the Audience Award for Narrative Feature, Jamie Chung received a "Special Jury Recognition for Performance" from the narrative feature competition jury.