Review: Jamie Chung does star-making work in harrowing SXSW award-winner 'Eden'
I was not familiar with the name Megan Griffiths until now, but it appears that I've been watching her work for years. She produced two of Todd Rohal's films, she co-produced the outstanding "Your Sister's Sister" which I saw this year at Sundance, and she also helped produce the documentary "Zoo," which is a terribly disturbing film. I did not see her previous films, but "The Off Hours" was at Sundance last year, and I know a few people who liked it.
I will definitely catch up with it, because I thought her new film, "Eden," was a strong, simple presentation of a harrowing story, with a great performance from Jamie Chung to ground the whole thing. Based on the real life of Chong Kim, who gets a co-story credit, "Eden" tells the story of a young Korean girl who works for her parents in their store and who is just starting to experiment with freedom, sneaking out with her friend, smoking cigarettes. She's very young, and despite her little white lies, she seems like a fairly innocent girl.
That ends one night when she uses a fake ID to go to a bar where she meets Jesse (Scott Mechlowicz). She decides to go home with him, and instead ends up abducted, then driven to her new home, a prison-like bunker where she's kept with other underage prostitutes. The main face she sees each day belongs to Vaughan (Matt O'Leary), who works for Bob Gault (Beau Bridges), a law-enforcement officer who is running a fairly major network of flesh-peddling on many levels.
Griffiths directs the film with an unflinching eye, but she is careful not to exploit Chung in the role. The film deals frankly and directly with the material about what the girls are forced to do, but it's not explicit. It's more experiential, taking you into the emotional bubble that the newly-renamed Eden has to build in order to survive somewhat intact.
Over time, she grows aware of just how precarious her situation is, and she has to figure out some way to make herself valuable to the organization because at 19, she's too old for them to keep sending her out. That gives you an idea of the turnover at the place where she's held, and the life expectancy. The way Eden navigates her way to survival is well-told and there's always a sense of urgency. More than the storytelling, though, what kept me rapt was Chung herself. She's a graduate of "The Real World" on MTV, and it would be easy to dismiss her sight unseen because she came from reality TV. But she's pretty great here, and she expertly charts every step of her emotional journey, believably moving from little girl with braces playing catch-up to war-hardened survivor. O'Leary makes a strong partner for her in most of the film's biggest scenes, while Bridges shows up a few times and really registers as the bland face of good ol' boy evil.
The movie is well-made, cleanly shot, but it's not really the sort of film that you praise on the strength of visuals. It is simply told, but the power of the film comes from just how matter-of-fact even the most awful details are handled. This could have been a leering slice of exploitation in the wrong hands, but thankfully "Eden" finds exactly the right voice to tell such a significant tale.
"Eden" won the Narrative Feature Film Audience Award last night at the SXSW 2012 Awards, and Chung was given a Special Jury prize for performance.