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Ron Livingston delivers a powerful breakout performance as a 'comfortably numb' American gambler, immersed in a dangerous and shocking culture of corruption and deceit. Disgusted and inspired, he finds true meaning in his life as he frantically searches through both the beautiful and sordid faces of Cambodia, risking everything in a desperate attempt to save the life of one girl. Stars Chris Penn in his final role, with a chilling performance by Udo Kier.
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The film is about a 12 year old Vietnamese girl who is sold by her impoverished family and forced into prostitution in a Cambodian brothel. She is told that if she tries to escape, kidnappers will take her younger sister. An American living in Cambodia meets Holly when his motorcycle breaks down outside her brothel. Even though he has jaded himself to the trafficking problem for years he develops a concern for Holly and her situation. He explains to a friend that he got used to looking away, ignoring the problem, but in this case he looked in her eyes. His efforts to help Holly are hindered by many all-too-real obstacles.
I highly respect the production team, cast, and crew for putting their lives at risk in order to make this film on site in the trafficking areas of Cambodia. In the DVD extras they allude to the barrage of difficulties they faced. Ron Livingston, who was excellent in Band of Brothers, gives a very good performance here, as does the Cambodian/Vietnamese cast. The film also briefly explores the issue of street children--trying to survive by picking through trash at a dump, and the issue of uncleared mine fields.
In contrast, Slum Dog Millionaire also depicts the terrible conditions of child trafficking and slavery but it has a fantasy storyline and it doesn't encourage the viewer to help bring about change--its purpose is to entertain. I was upset after seeing Slum Dog because I knew that the vast majority of people watching it would laugh, cry, be entertained, and then go on with their day as if the whole child trafficking thing was just an imaginary world. Holly is very different in that respect. The film's primary purpose is to increase awareness of the horrific and very widespread problem of child trafficking, to advocate for change, and to provide opportunities for the audience to participate in that change through grassroots advocacy, etc. On the DVD they encourage viewers to go to a website: RedlightChildren(dot)org.
Two other excellent organizations I have encountered that are working to stop child trafficking by using unique areas of expertise are The International Justice Mission, which consists primarily of lawyers who legally challenge governments to enforce existing laws regarding human trafficking, and Shared Hope International which was started by former U.S. congresswoman Linda Smith who saw the needs firsthand on a trip to South Asia. Shared Hope focuses on advocacy, legislation, recovery homes, etc. Congresswoman Smith wrote an excellent book on how she got involved: From Congress to the Brothel
Like a number of films about the seedy side of Cambodia, such as 'City of Ghosts' (2002), there are the stock characters- the expats with a past, spending their nights sweating under ceiling fans as they gamble and speak bad Khmer with a gang of criminal looking Cambodians, the cruel "mama-sans" ( I've never actually heard this term used in Cambodia but then I don't frequent places where they might be, so...), the kindly but cynical one who gives timely ( but of course unheeded advice) to the main character about the inherently corrupt society in which they are living; the 'gansters' with the gold jewellry...etc..but it does also present some chillingly realistic lesser known characters too, ones which in contemporary Cambodian society are all too prevalent- the corrupt police who offer sanctuary to children then sell them, the brothel inspectors who demand high bribes once they get wind of a very young girl on the premises, and the children who live off the pickings of the apocalyptic dump sites around the larger towns.
The entire film was shot on location and reinforces, through the setting, the endemic povery and delapidated state of the country, which only adds to its poignant authenticity.
Another film which addresses this topic is 'Monsoon Wife' ( 2001), but Holly is much more engaging, as the narrative and cinematography are effective and the actors do a very commendable job. Having seen Gerald Depardieu as the French expat with his tacky bar in Phnom Penh in 'City of Ghosts', I can say I prefer Chris Penn's understated but entirely convincing role of an American expat, who has a similar size and presence to Depardieu but plays more of an interesting character. Ron Livingstone is very good- he's less surly and more likeable than he was in his role in "Sex and The City", and his comments at the end of the doco on the Special Features on the DVD are extremely pertinent- he poses the challenge of : If we know there's a child molestor living next door, do we have the moral obligation to intervene? Most people would pride themselves on saying yes, I would assume. Well, Livingstone asks,what about if it's happening in another country? Is it any different? It is, as he says, "no different, but it's harder".
He's absolutely right- and because it's harder we should try harder to do what we all can to prevent it.
As for the end of the film, some reviewers have said they found it unsatisfying, but I must say that I found it entirely in keeping with the rest of the film- there's no happy endings in this kind of situation, and Livingstone's kind but dangerously impulsive characte was always going to end up like the ending of the film depicts. As for Holly, we can only imagine( or prefer not to) the rest of her life.