Virgins are pure gold in Trade, Marco Kreuzpaintner’s sickening trivialization of the industry that brings innocent children and naïve young women to the United States from Mexico to be sold into sexual slavery. It’s not inconceivable that something so tacky would be foisted onto audiences by the director of Summer Storm and the screenwriter of The Motorcycle Diaries, but it’s another thing to out-sleaze Hostel: Part II. Given that geopolitical-issue porn like Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, and The Constant Gardener is all the rage now, there’s no doubt Trade will find a substantial audience, but anyone who deems this infuriating picture’s commentary on sex trafficking any more legitimate than Eli Roth’s views on capitalism hypocritically exposes a predilection for more pompous shows of cinematic smut.
Trade has cojones for trying to lay the kind of political guilt trip it does on us with its sham aesthetics and lurid telenovela-writ-large storyline, and to get a handle on the shrill level at which it is relentlessly pitched, examples are in order. Picture it: Mexico City, shot in the same herky-jerky style and fashion-magazine hues of Amores Perros and City of God. A teenager, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), gives his little sister, Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), a bicycle for her birthday, but their mother asks the boy to take the gift away because she doesn’t care to imagine the illicit means by which he procured it. Cut to Jorge luring an American tourist onto a dingy street with the promise of underage cherry. Maybe Jorge’s mother is right about the boy, except Kreuzpaintner takes desperate pains to demonstrate Jorge’s humanity (if not to for the sake of his mami then for us) by having him steal the pervert’s money with—wait for it—a water gun! If this were an Eli Roth film, the American would have probably crapped his pants, but the point is still the same: keep your foreign paws off our homegrown vag.
We’re a long way from the moral ambiguity that colors the poignant parent-child relations and street violence of Los Olvidados. Kreuzpaintner and Jose Rivera reduce real-world tragedy to pure, unadulterated pap, delineating the emotional and ethical damage of their characters in a manner so dismayingly simpleminded it makes Crash’s social observations seem sincere. Kreuzpaintner understands the Mexican male only as a cliché (fatherless and/or God-fearing), and through Jorge’s punking of the fat American with a fake pistol the director not only gets to lay out his uncomplicated thoughts on territorial possession but also tritely distinguish between the bad criminal behavior responsible for orchestrating sex trafficking and the more acceptable kind that enacts guerilla justice against the pedophiles who abuse Adriana’s innocence.
IMDb, which amusingly but aptly categorizes this single-minded film under “sex slavery,” “sex slave,” “girl next door,” and “sex,” reveals that Milla Jovovich had the good sense to pass on the role of Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a Polish single mother who’s tricked into going to Mexico with the promise of riches and whose friend is flippantly dispatched in Rothian style outside an airport terminal just as she’s about to elude the goons that thrust Veronica into their getaway vehicle. Another thing IMDb exposes is at least one person’s esteem for Trade’s “powerful message and entertainment value,” which must be a reference to the exploitative humiliation Veronica endures throughout the story, from being raped (from behind) in front of Adriana by the Russian ghoul who plotted their capture to the chokehold a coke fiend gives her in order to get an ostensibly psychotropic pill down her throat. The message? Don’t give your passport to strangers.
Fun stuff, but not as fantastical as the film’s expression of psychological damage. Jorge follows his sister’s captors into one of Mexico City’s barrios—first by car, then in resourceful Run Lola Run fashion—and straight to an abandoned house whose walls are covered in etchings we only see in bad psychological thrillers; these images express the sort of lurid, end-of-days fixation victims of abuse typically articulate more privately, and only then after an extended period of mistreatment. Real criminals would never allow this evidence to remain, but authenticity is never on this lunatic picture’s mind, suffocating its characters and audience alike with a ludicrous string of fluke melodramas that compromises any pretense to realism the filmmakers hope to stake out, beginning with Jorge hitching a ride all the way to northern New Jersey with a police officer, Ray (Kevin Kline), at the exact moment he loses his sister’s scent.
Midway through, Trade becomes something of a buddy comedy, with Jorge, after convincing Ray that he isn’t just another Mexican trying to sneak into the country in order to piss George W. Bush off, impressing the older man with his definition of an American and unconsciously getting the cop to divulge the convoluted backstory that also brought him to the abandoned house in Mexico where Jorge snuck into the trunk of the man’s car. The dry-erase board Rivera probably used to chart this distinctively elaborate mess of intersecting contrivances, shitty dialogue (my favorite: “I want to see blood on the sheets!”), grade-school political discourse (“We are the fucking gringo” this, “green money” that), and glib ironic highlighting (look for the Neighborhood Crime Watch sign flagrantly featured in the background of one shot) could just as easily be used as a study guide for prospective screenwriters as it could be treated as a classic case of compulsive pathological behavior at psychology functions the world over. There’s no doubting that any of this would happen or has happened in real life, just not in such a sharply, bathetically distilled manner.
Though Trade may be based on truth (specifically Peter Landesman’s fine 2004 article “The Girls Next Door” for The New York Times), Rivera busily plots the story in the reductive mode of a bad Hollywood suspense picture (note the inexplicable fuzziness given to the scene where Jorge and Ray bid for Adriana on an online auction site), which Kreuzpaintner paints using soap-operatic gestures that call into question his sense of common decency. Adriana’s implied deflowering on the side of the road after she and her captors sneak into America is staged as a romantic stroll through the park, featuring dudes getting head from small bodies (the zone of suckage tastefully blurred out for the audience), pissing on wild reeds, and sinisterly approaching little girls dolled up in wedding dresses. The use of poetic affectation confirms what I already suspected about Kreuzpainter from Summer Storm: that his problem with sex is as tawdry as his view of art.