‘Holly’: An unsettling chronicle of child prostitution

By WILLIAM ARNOLD
P-I MOVIE CRITIC

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.

MOVIE REVIEW

HOLLY

DIRECTOR: Guy Moshe

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

GRADE: B

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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(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.