World On Film returns after a slight absence (did anyone notice?) with a trip to Cambodia, where proof that our species is highly selective about its morality is cast in the stark light of hypocrisy as the child sex trade and those who perpetuate it form the basis for:
(2006) Written by Guy Moshe & Guy Jacobson Directed by Guy Moshe
“There’s crime, and there’s crime. These people already have a reservation for Hell. They care about nothing. Your life, maybe $5 and I will miss you.”
An American expat in Cambodia, deadened to the realities of life there after many years of living in the country and dealing in stolen artifacts, is suddenly awoken from his torpor when he encounters Holly, a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl sold into sex slavery. Attempting to rescue her from her fate, he discovers that saving even one of the millions of victims to child trafficking in South-East Asia may be a lot harder than expected.
A co-production between the U.S, France, Israel, and Cambodia, Holly is a compelling, yet unsurprisingly horrifying and tragic window into the global child sex industry, with over 2 million unwitting minors sold into sex slavery every year, according to the U.N. Although a fictitious account, the film is part of the producers’ K11 Project (http://www.myspace.com/priorityfilms), an attempt to raise public awareness of the issue. Jacobson chose Cambodia for his setting following an eye-opening visit to the country years earlier, where he found himself repeatedly approached by young children on the streets of Cambodia offering up their bodies.
Indeed, the real power of the film lies in the extensive location shooting in the country, including many scenes shot in actual Phnom Penh brothels where trafficked girls end up after having been sold by destitute parents unable to provide for them and not given the full picture as to their offspring’s fate. It is implied in Holly that a fair portion of the underage children facing this tragic future in Cambodia are often smuggled from neighbouring Vietnam. At one point, the eponymous victim explains to her would-be rescuer that parents like hers were forced to balance the cold equations of basic survival, and had little chance of making a living other than by selling her off. Such is a decision that anyone not of an impoverished society (ie, you and I) may struggle to fathom, and therein underscores the truly desperate nature of the Third World. This is even assuming that the children were not simply abducted in public.
“Holly is a compelling, yet unsurprisingly horrifying and tragic window into the global child sex industry.”
Holly also makes the obvious, but oft-overlooked point that the only reason the trade exists is because there are adults willing to pay for it. Artifact dealer Patrick is to an extent Jacobson himself years earlier, discovering the ridiculous ease with which sex tourists can find underage girls to sleep with or to buy, simply by venturing into the red light districts of Phnom Penh. The easy manner with which those handling their human commodities in the presence of a potential customer belies how frequently it occurs, the sex tourists in the film originating from wealthier nations or even from within local government – the latter becoming a major source of conflict as the story progresses. For the former group, the Third World is like the internet, an unmonitored realm where they believe their anonymity gives them the right to abandon the social mores they observe in the ‘real world’ of their home countries. Nationalist rhetoric programs them to believe that only ‘their people’ are truly human like themselves, while the foreigner, falling outside this narrow fiction, is little more than an animal to be consumed when the appetite demands.
Beyond the activist groups working to combat the underage sex trade, it isn’t surprising that so many turn a blind eye to it. That there are those capable of treating the young of their own species in this way is tremendously hard to face in the developed world, and just one of a billion other problems to live with in the undeveloped world. The power of the film itself relies on getting across this sickening reality.
At the same time, however, Holly is a work of cinema and must also be judged as such. It is rather clichéd in places, depicting as it does the rugged, white American male swooping into the chaotic Orient to save the poor Asian girl from her own evil people. Ironically, Jacobson is far too aware of the realities of the problem in Cambodia to ignore this, with Patrick encountering volunteer campaigner and women’s refuge worker Marie who explains to him that what he is attempting to do in reality flies in the face of all manner of legal and psychological problems, not to mention mafia-related retaliation. In short, it will create more problems than exist already.
“At the same time, however, Holly is a work of cinema and must also be judged as such.”
The need to create a dramatic storyline with the usual elements of rising action, major conflict and so on also undermine the reality of the situation. Characters all too often just happen to run into each other in the right place at the right time despite the size of the setting in which the story occurs, leading to the CSI effect, wherein crimes are solved every episode as opposed to real life, wherein unsolved crimes are the norm. All of which criticism may sound a little unfair if Holly is taken simply as a drama. However, due to the concerted effort on the part of the film-makers to be as realistic as they can, whether it be real location shooting or the script’s dissemination of the hard facts about child trafficking, any attempt at unreal melodrama stands out all the more.
Ron Livingston is also very-much the stoic, square-jawed, good-looking hero who somehow cares about the situation more than anyone else we meet and is inevitably prone to emotional outbursts in all the right places. His checkered past is therefore easily forgiven and indeed simply makes him the classical dark and damaged hero that the Hollywood formula has proved works well with the audience. He’s on the run from justice in a world that wants him silenced. He’s not trying to save the everyone – he’s just trying to save one person, thereby reducing the conflict to the level of interpersonal melodrama.
And the formula works. Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, is perfectly-cast as the surly crusader, with a ‘lone ranger’ screen presence that will easily bring the audience on-side. Behind him, the whole cast is a perfect fit for the exercise: Pen Sopheap, for example, plays with conviction the vicious gang leader and smuggler, while Montakan Ransibrahmanakul is all too believable as the horribly cruel Madam of the first brothel in which Holly finds herself. Thuy Nguyen as Holly most definitely has an acting future ahead of her if she so chooses, imbuing the title character with pride, fear, stubbornness, confusion, and a whole range of emotions that convince the viewer utterly. Between them, Livingstone and Nguyen carefully confront the ultimate tragedy of their association, that of attachment which, in the twisted world they find themselves in, can only lead to their downfall.
“Ron Livingston, famous for his starring role in Office Space, is perfectly-cast as the surly crusader, with a ‘lone ranger’ screen presence that will easily bring the audience on-side.”
Finally, Cambodia itself, colourful, chaotic, otherworldly, and on the precipice of civilization, is a powerful character in its own right. While the film’s message could ultimately be delivered in any country, the uniquely Cambodian flavour of the setting indelibly stamps Holly with its own very particular identity, making for a very rich visual experience.
Where it can be legitimately argued that the film’s problematic Hollywood-ised nature should be secondary to its raison d’etre, I will agree up to a point. While the dialogue of the White Man’s Burden is long past its sell-by date, it is very much a reflection of the writer/director’s attempts to come to terms with the horror he has discovered. It is a horror very real to a young and silent multitude for whom the adult world around them treats with a dismissiveness only they are immoral enough to live with. Where Holly fails elsewhere as a patronising cliché, it succeeds in making clear this last point. In all the ways in which it is an exercise in generating awareness and fuel condemnation of the child sex trade, it is a gut-wrenching success.
“One thing that became strongly apparent to me after viewing the film is that no description of its plot really underscores how atmospheric and disturbing it is.”
Colonial collapse and myopic madness in Claire Denis’s Cameroon-based drama, White Material. View a trailer below: