‘Holly’ rises above standard melodrama

December 4, 2007

(click to enlarge)
A scene from “Holly.”

‘Holly’ rises above standard melodrama

Having been mired in extremely serious films for the last couple of months, it comes as no surprise to encounter “Holly” at this point. For here is a film about child prostitution in Southeast Asia.

This isn’t another in the flood of recent documentaries; “Holly” takes a traditional dramatic route, and with pretty strong results. But it uses so many real locations that it could be a documentary.

The film’s greatest weakness is its rather cliched idea of a main character, a burned-out American known for his card-playing skills in Cambodia. This is Patrick (Ron Livingston), the type of guy who’s a little too familiar in stories like these.

We don’t know what happened to Patrick to make him dead inside, but he works as a courier for another American (Chris Penn, in one of his last roles) dealing in illegal transport.

By accident, Patrick makes the acquaintance of a 12-year-old girl, Holly (Thuy Nguyen). He slowly realizes she has been sold into sexual slavery by her Vietnamese parents, and taken to a slum district of Phnom Penh to work as a prostitute.

It will come as no shock that Patrick’s encounter with Holly stirs some slumbering sense of righteousness within him. That much of the plot is standard; what’s admirable about the movie is that it doesn’t entirely play out the way you might expect.

Director Guy Moshe catches the creepy, humid atmosphere of his milieu, which was reportedly filmed in Phnom Penh neighborhoods that had very recently housed brothels like the ones depicted here. That gives the movie believability, even of a disturbing kind.

Adding immeasurably to this is a fascinating score by Ton-That Tiet, the Vietnamese composer of “Scent of Green Papaya.” It sounds like atonal jazz of the 1950s, and it absolutely works for the story.

The average-guy qualities of Ron Livingston (recently seen in “Music Within”) give his character some ragged life, and French starlet Virginie Ledoyen is all right as a social worker. Udo Kier lends his usual air of decadence to the role of a veteran consumer of brothel culture.

The film’s ending takes some gutsy turns. It isn’t quite enough to turn this into a classic, or lift it above the level of melodrama, not matter how sincere and committed. But it gets the job done.


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