Hybrid Gender with Mixed Results

in 38th Seattle International Film Festival

by Pascal Grenier

In this year’s New American competition at Seattle, three new directors used hybrid gender-influenced approaches for their feature debuts, with very mixed results. Inspired by a shocking true-life story, locally-based filmmaker Megan Griffiths delves into horror and suspense with her very polished debut Eden. The film tells the horrifying story of an 18-year-old Asian girl (mannequin-turned-actress Jamie Chung in a breakout performance) who gets kidnapped and forced into prostitution and human trafficking by a clandestine criminal ring in Nevada (led by a veteran Marshal police ranger played by Beau Bridges).

Despite the subject matter, the director carefully handles all the exploitative and sensational elements with a well-balanced sense of restraint. The film never goes into familiar gloomy territory or resorts to the conventional devices of gender-based films; it even adds a feminist approach and sensibility to its subject. Even though it is quite predictable and doesn’t propose anything new in terms of gender, Eden is adequately well-made and deserves some praise for what it is. Horror movie buffs may be a little bit disappointed with the lack of blood and gore but the film is more effective as an engaging drama than as a pure horror flick.

The badly titled 419 (referring to Nigerian scams in which victims are defrauded for monetary gain) is a USA/South African production directed by Ned Thorne. Although it is not a horror film, 419 uses a familiar and overcooked premise which borrows a lot from the The Blair Witch Project (retrieved video footage found on a crime scene), and tells a fake documentary (this becomes obvious ten minutes into the film) about a struggling actor who, after losing a lot of money in an internet scam, decides to travel with two buddies to South Africa in hopes of finding the guilty parties.

Shot with a handheld camera and with lots of jump cuts, Thorne’s direction is all over the place. He didn’t handle his subject well and the film unsuccessfully incorporates elements of family drama, suspense and adventure. It’s quite hectic to say the least, and it is also pretty obvious that we’re dealing with a fake documentary from the get-go. Even the “twist” ending is more mechanical than effective, and only accentuates the artificiality of the entire picture. In addition, the acting is quite uneven and all potential social issues are put on the backburner.

Even less convincing than 419, Recalled is a military suspense drama directed by Michael Connors. Based on his short film of the same title, Connors (who spent four years in both active service and the New York National Guard before graduating from a film program) explores the ethical dilemma faced by a bunch of soldiers the day before they are deployed in Iraq. Despite the intriguing premise, the film quickly becomes a colorless drama about comradeship and loyalty. Worse than that, it turns out to be another one of those moralistic exercises in patriotism and jingoism.

The insistent music tries to add to the suspense, as if something really engaging is happening, but the cat-and-mouse chase between the two main soldiers (one a lieutenant, the other a specialist who tries to go AWOL to visit his sick son) turns out to be pretty flat. It’s also quite sad to see a talented actor like Aidan Quinn relegated to a poorly-made debut film like this.