City Lights Media // 2006 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge William Lee // January 27th, 2009
Out of thousands, he tried to save one.
While traveling in South East Asia, writer-producer Guy Jacobson encountered toddlers prostituting themselves. Vowing to do something about this social evil, Jacobson initiated an effort to raise global awareness of child sexploitation. One part of a three-film project, Holly uses a fictional narrative, but the story is too real to ignore. It's a movie with a message, certainly, but it's delivered through strong storytelling and compelling performances that stay with you.
Living in Cambodia, Patrick (Ron Livingston, Music Within) spends his time drinking and gambling when he isn't doing odd jobs for an exporter of stolen artifacts. On his way to meet a shipment, Patrick spends a few nights in a hotel -- actually a brothel in a village that caters to sex tourists. There, he meets Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year-old girl who has been sold to the sex traffickers by her family. She's still a virgin, so she will fetch a handsome price from her first customer. At first, Patrick doesn't want to get involved, but he starts to form a bond with Holly. How can he rescue the girl from a corrupt society where everyone wants to profit from the flesh trade?
According to the United Nations, over 2 million children around the world are either kidnapped or sold to the sex trafficking industry every year. Holly is the story of one of those victims but, sadly, it feels like a tale that is all too common. Using real locations to tell their story, the level of authenticity achieved by the filmmakers is remarkable. The village where Patrick finds Holly really was a notorious bordello neighborhood just three months before the film crew arrived. The cafes, bars and hotel rooms all seem quite ordinary on the surface but exude a sense of cynicism and hopelessness from their decrepit condition and human occupants. The implication is that the horrible activity of the sex traffickers is supported, to varying degrees of complicity, by the community. At first, we're shocked to see no one reacting when two men chase down a teenage girl and beat her on the street, but we quickly realize that this must be such a common sight that it's hard for anyone to care.
Ron Livingston is outstanding as the world-weary Patrick. We never find out why he's left the U.S. but his attitude says plenty about his disappointment with life and his desire to be left alone. Even as he lowers his guard and shows some kindness to Holly, he's reluctant to get involved in her life. He's disgusted by what he sees around him but he's hobbled by the knowledge that he can't change the situation. Patrick is no hero and he knows it, which makes his decision to do something all the more compelling.
Newcomer Thuy Nguyen brings a raw, natural presence to the title role. I don't know whether she is a novice professional actor or a local who was discovered by the filmmakers, but she is perfectly cast. Holly is as strong and resourceful as a young girl can be in such circumstances. She puts up as much resistance as possible but is resigned to her fate when her captors threaten to kidnap her sister if she doesn't cooperate. Witnessing her plight will enrage you and break your heart.
Strong supporting work comes from Chris Penn (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) as Patrick's sympathetic employer, Virginie Ledoyen (Bon Yoyage) as the operator of a reeducation center for rescued sex slaves and Udo Kier (Dracula 3000) as a loathsome tourist who enjoys the "expensive delights" available to him.
Director Guy Moshe's feature debut doesn't contain any distinctive (or distracting) creative flourishes but it does exhibit a clear and confident manner of cinematic storytelling. Combining strong performances from the cast and excellent use of locations, Holly feels as convincing as a documentary. The script by Moshe and Jacobson manages to say a lot about the sex trafficking industry without lecturing. It also finds exactly the right note to convey the despair of the situation: it's not so hopeless that we should give up, nor is there a simple way to fight this social evil.
The picture quality on this DVD is reasonably good. While the image is free of physical defects, it appears slightly dark overall and there is a subtle, earthy color bias to the picture. Nighttime scenes feel a bit murky, especially in the shadows, but that may be a limitation of the source material considering the low-budget constraints of the production. The movie is given a Dolby 5.1 surround mix that was probably unnecessary. The movie doesn't require a big mix as many scenes are fairly quiet and effective nonetheless. Occasional environmental sound effects make use of the surround speakers but the audio is mostly delivered from the front. The strong and clear dialogue is spoken in English, Khmer and Vietnamese. Optional English subtitles only appear for the non-English speech. Optional Spanish subtitles accompany the entire script.
The first of three supplemental featurettes, "Behind the K11 Project" is an eight-minute making-of documentary. Cast and crew are interviewed briefly and we see the small production on location. There are hints to the larger three-film project initiated by producers Jacobson and Adi Ezroni but it's left without further elaboration. We also hear conversations about dealings with the Chinese mafia, the possibility of the production shutting down before the movie even starts filming and director Moshe's objection to hiring a real victim of the sex trade to relive her experience in their dramatization. None of these elements gets proper treatment, which makes this extra feel like an incomplete documentary.
The second extra is footage of Jacobson and Ezroni receiving an award as "Anti-Trafficking Heroes" for their work to bring attention to the issue through Holly. Without studio backing, it's hard for a movie to reach a wide audience, and especially so when the subject matter is so somber, so it's nice to see the movie recognized this way.
There is also a six-minute excerpt from the documentary Children for Sale which appears to be outside of the three films Jacobson started but is also produced by him and others involved with Holly.
After a certain point, viewers will get the feeling that this story won't have a happy ending. The script doesn't sugarcoat the situation or promise something redeeming from the experience. In one surprising scene, Ledoyen's character essentially tells Patrick that he can't make a difference. It's a tough moment because Patrick wants to save Holly but he realizes how powerless he is against the vast size of the trafficking industry. The filmmakers want to inform and inspire action, but they offer no easy answers. That might frustrate viewers who are moved by this story.
The filmmakers should be commended for their decision to tell the story of Holly in such a brave, honest and unflinching manner. They also manage to avoid the luridness that might have brought more attention to the movie for the wrong reasons. It is unfortunate that the extras on this DVD miss the opportunity to tell viewers more about the K11 project. To find out more about the passionate and important work by the filmmakers, you'll have to visit the official site.
As one of the movie's characters says about the sex traffickers, "These people already have a reservation in hell." Those who partake of the abuse and exploitation of children, or turn a blind eye to it, also bear some of the guilt. The movie is free to go and the filmmakers are thanked for their good work.
Review content copyright © 2009 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: City Lights Media
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Documentary Excerpt
* Official Site