In her second indie feature, “The Off Hours,” Seattle-based filmmaker Megan Griffiths applied a low-key, introspective style to a subtle study of a forlorn waitress who escapes from her dead-end job to seek a happier future. Griffith’s third and equally praiseworthy film, “Eden,” charts a similar course, this time focusing on a Korean-American teenager who falls victim to human trafficking in a corrupt New Mexico town.
It’s 1994, and as high-school graduation approaches, Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung) gets into a local bar with a fake ID, unwisely leaves with a nice-looking guy and soon finds herself captive in a sex-slave operation run by a federal marshal (Beau Bridges) in a remote, abandoned storage facility. Defiant at first, and renamed “Eden” by her captors, she gradually turns cooperative, maintaining a calm facade while seizing (at first unsuccessfully) every opportunity to escape.
With well-chosen Washington state locations doubling for the New Mexican desert, “Eden” cooks on slow simmer, building upon cringe-worthy details (the girls’ indoctrination includes having their dental fillings removed) while avoiding the female nudity and graphic, in-your-face violence that would’ve labeled the film as crass exploitation.
Griffiths wisely sees no purpose in rubbing these things in our faces. Cruelty, bloodletting and death are evident throughout (frequently occurring just outside the frame), and Griffith’s laudable discretion actually intensifies their impact.
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Inspired by the real-life experience of Chong Kim (who receives co-story credit with co-screenwriter Richard B. Phillips), “Eden” is brought to life through Griffith’s easy rapport with a first-rate cast, especially in pivotal scenes between Chung and Matt O’Leary (from last year’s made-in-Seattle indie film “Fat Kid Rules the World”) as the marshal’s assistant. Capitalizing on minimal screen time, Bridges bristles with insidious menace while maintaining a congenial, misleading exterior.
The pacing is occasionally sluggish and there are a few lapses in credibility, but the film’s ambient score adds sonic texture to Sean Porter’s seductive, story-serving cinematography. Where a mainstream treatment of this fact-based story would’ve included chase scenes, shootouts and sordid sex in abundance, Griffiths & Co. take the opposite approach, building suspense with a delicate touch that intelligently defies expectations.