‘Holly’: An unsettling chronicle of child prostitution

December 4, 2007

‘Holly’: An unsettling chronicle of child prostitution


Two months ago, the movie “Trade” exposed, in fictional terms, the Mexican trade in child sex slaves — the horror of kids kidnapped off the streets and sold to brothels or wealthy pedophiles. “Holly” is the Far Eastern counterpart of the same story.




CAST: Ron Livingston, Thuy Nguyen, Virginie Ledoyen, Chris Penn, Udo Kier

LANGUAGE: English, Khmer and Vietnamese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes

RATING: R for disturbing sexual situations involving children, and for language

WHERE: Meridian 16


Like that earlier ’07 film, this one is unflinching and relentless in its depiction of a sordid world, but it’s in no way titillation masquerading as social commentary. The filmmaker’s vision is harrowingly ugly and profoundly upsetting every step of the way.

The title character (Thuy Nguyen) is a 12-year-old Vietnamese prostitute from a small village who has been sold by her desperately poor parents to a sex trafficker, who has in turn sold her to a brothel in neighboring Cambodia, the international mecca of child prostitution.

Holly is seen mainly from the point of view of Patrick (Ron Livingston), a 30-something American peddler in illegal antiquities who gets to know her when his motorbike breaks down in front of her brothel and he’s stranded for two days in the infamous K-11 red-light village.

When Holly runs away and embarks on a hopeless odyssey to return to her village, Patrick tries to help her, driven partly by guilt that he has had some sexual feelings for her, but mostly by a moral epiphany: He thinks if he can save this one child, he may be able to save his soul.

Filmed in Cambodia in the face of government harassment (with many scenes shot inside the brothels of Phnom Penh), the low-budget film was produced by activists of the Redlight Children Campaign, a grass-roots movement to “generate concern and immediate action against child sexploitation.”

Even so, it works as more than a muckraking tract. The story is told with great passion and authority by first-time director Guy Moshe; and the ironic, tortured performances of Livingston, Udo Kier (as a john), the late Chris Penn (as an antiquities dealer) and 14-year-old Thuy Nguyen are all first-rate.

In at least one way, “Holly” is probably a better, more honest movie than “Trade,” because it doesn’t betray itself with the semblance of a Hollywood ending. It’s realistic enough to admit that there’s probably no way to ever completely eradicate an evil for which there seems to be such an eager demand.

It’s also likely to be a controversial movie because it dares to make the (politically incorrect) statement that child prostitution in Cambodia is less a phenomenon of perverted Western tourism than a deeply entrenched, long-accepted phenomenon of Cambodian culture — and any attempt to end it without taking this fact into account is doomed to failure.

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