Eden concerns a manifestation of what might be the worst of every parent’s waking nightmares. It’s 1994, and Hyun Jae (Jamie Chung) is a pretty, bright, naïve teenager who’s clearly beginning to taste the fruits of petty rebellion against her parents. She enjoys the occasional cigarette behind her parents’ shop, and appears to live vicariously through the exploits of a more adventurous friend who soon coaxes Hyun Jae into hitting a bar one night to look for guys. Neither of the girls are of drinking age, but both have a look that can be awfully persuasive in the right light with the right guy at the door. Groggy from a morphine hangover, Hyun Jae awakes the next morning in a large metal storage facility in her underwear with at least 20 other young girls. Her captor, who we eventually learn is a celebrated federal marshal by the name of Bob Gault (Beau Bridges), explains to Hyun Jae that she’ll have a few days to recover from the shock of her abduction, but that she will soon be expected to get with the program.
Said program is a child sex-slave trade that’s hidden in plain sight of theoretically polite first-world society, and co-writer/director Megan Griffiths scores her most chilling social points when she’s observing the specificities of a branch of an empire that can be called evil without indulging in melodramatics. Hyun Jae, sharper and more calculating than we initially understand, soon realizes that, at 19, she’s rapidly approaching expendability as a marketable commodity, and so she finds a way to climb as far up the black-market food chain as possible. Hyun Jae befriends Vaughan (Matt O’Leary), her wrangler and prime tormentor, by explaining to him that they should be making more money on the girls. Soon, Hyun Jae is installed as Vaughan’s unofficial treasurer, which grants her a level of power and responsibility that may or may not be going to her head, and it’s the mystery of Hyun Jae’s motivations that drives the film’s suspense.
The “male gaze” that often despicably and hypocritically surfaces in these kinds of films is pointedly absent throughout. Though the film may be, at times, too chaste considering the subject matter, Griffiths’s methods allow you to understand that Hyun Jae’s captors see their trade as simply a matter of business. We’re not privy to the most disgusting details because the overseers of this underworld have somehow found a way to normalize the services they provide. Instead, Griffiths symbolizes the worst violations with succinct, carefully chosen details: a close-up of a needle, a brief glimpse of bondage gear, a tub of ice, the bloody stains on a man’s boxer shorts.
The film is aesthetically conventional, however, relying mostly on standard over-the-shoulder setups that cause the film to bear an unfortunate resemblance to a low-budget Lifetime movie. The obvious satirical implication of the story, that this sex trade embodies the sickest implications of the blind obedience that most institutions (government, military, law enforcement) foster, isn’t sufficiently developed. And two key performances are miscalculated, as Bridges and, particularly, O’Leary (who appears to be doing a twitchy Ben Forster impression) overplay their villains in a manner more fitting a conventional thriller. But the performance that matters is remarkable. Chung navigates a number of tricky emotional transitions throughout the film with a subtle matter of factness that affirms the tragedy at the heart of Eden; she lends a human face to what could have been a more detached and thematic civil-services talking point. Though Eden often frustratingly suggests the better movie it might’ve been, it’s still an absorbing refutation of the casual in-joke jocularity that characterizes far too many horror movies.