Holly [subtitled in part]

Holly, set in Cambodia, is the story of the relationship between young American Patrick and 12 year old Vietnamese girl Holly.

Patrick has been drifting around Southeast Asia for 15 years, after apparently getting himself in some unspecified trouble back home. He doesn’t seem to have any sort of real job, but makes enough money via enough hustles to support himself, including by playing poker and by here and there doing some work for an American buddy of his that runs some kind of vague operation I didn’t really understand (evidently something shady; some kind of smuggling or black market thing, I think). He doesn’t seem like a particularly bad guy, just kind of jaded and apathetic.

Holly was recently sold into sex slavery by her desperate family. The madam of the brothel she was sold to is trying to get the highest price she can for someone taking her virginity, since there is far higher demand for that than for the much lower-priced non-virgin girls, and she doesn’t want to miss out since it’s a one-time thing with each girl. (Or maybe not, since later we see some doctor or pseudo-doctor who apparently gets paid by the brothels to do some kind of vagina surgery to enable non-virgins to pass as virgins.)

I gather the movie was made by, or in consultation with, people who work on the issue of child prostitution/sex slavery in real life. So it has a kind of activist agenda of wanting to educate people on this subject and motivate them to act. But it’s not as amateurish and preachy as that kind of movie can sometimes be; actually judged just as a movie rather than for its agenda, it’s above average and reasonably well made. You can make the case that some of the bad guys (and gals) are a little cartoon villainish, but then again I would think that the folks in real life who kidnap and rape 12 year olds aren’t much different from that.

Patrick and Holly meet and—predictably since this is a movie—very quickly find that each is exactly what the other needs. Holly reawakens Patrick’s conscience and his capacity to love, and gives him the kind of purpose in life that he hasn’t had in a long time, if ever. Patrick becomes for Holly the one adult she can trust who is not trying to harm or exploit her in some way, and someone who could potentially rescue her from her nightmarish situation.

The fact that they connect so quickly—that there’s really only a very, very brief period of I think a day or so where Holly is closed and mistrustful toward this adult male stranger showing a lot of interest in her before she lets him in—is one of the less realistic things in the movie. Actually I think in general one of its weaknesses is the way it condenses time implausibly like that, where things change and develop much, much faster than would likely happen in real life.

Another example is after they are separated for between one and two months, Holly no longer recognizes Patrick due to the traumatic experiences she has undergone in the meantime. The idea is that if you’re forced into an intolerable life, psychologically you might shut down in some sense and live that new horrible life in a robotic fashion disconnected from your real self that is now buried within you, with results like being unable to recognize someone or something from your previous life. That’s not implausible, I suppose, but I had trouble buying the idea that after only a month or so a traumatized person could so fully have erased her past from her mind.

Another thing that I thought was a bit unrealistic, or maybe that just constituted an odd lack of wariness on the part of Patrick, who is supposed to be a pretty street-smart, world-weary sort, is the way Patrick and Holly are able to spend so much time together when she is the captive of this brothel. True, there are consequences when he disappears with her for a while to take her on a motorbike ride one afternoon, but they’re really quite minimal (she gets lightly scolded, and he has to cough up a few bucks to smooth things over). Mostly they hang out quite a bit without anyone raising an objection. She even comes to his room and stays with him for extended periods, including overnight.

That would scare me to death if I were in his shoes, because I would assume it would be inferred that something sexual was going on, or at least that that’s what I was seeking. In a country like ours I’d be completely paranoid about that because we’re still very much in a collective panic about sex offenders where “innocent until proven guilty” and such have been cast aside. But in his situation specifically it’s not so much the law I’d be concerned about, as the brothel folks insisting on payment if they think he has done anything sexual with her, or really even if they don’t genuinely think that but can plausibly pretend to. I mean, these are crooked, violent folks who employ goons and who clearly are hooked up with organized crime or corrupt local civil authority or both; do you really think they’d hesitate to enforce a “You broke it, you pay for it” policy on this guy if he gives them the slightest opening to do so? For a regular girl that might only be something like $20, but for a 12 year old virgin it’s in the thousands, and there’s no indication he has that kind of money.

Actually, on three or four different occasions people do assume that he is a john who is paying for Holly’s company for sexual purposes. Not in a way that gets him into trouble though, but more in an embarrassing, if not a little comical, way.

So they become friends, their relationship has its ups and downs, and he comes to find out that in the end there’s really not much he can do for her. That is, even as he becomes more attached to her and more willing to sacrifice in order to rescue her—by taking greater risks, spending more money, making a longer term commitment, whatever it takes—once you get down to specifics it’s not clear just what form that “rescue” could take.

She’d like to go home to her family in Vietnam. But it’s unlikely she could get over the border, and if she did return home, that’s the first place the people she’s escaping from would go looking for her, and not only would they kidnap her and return her to slavery, but they’d take revenge on her family who would have, in their eyes, accepted payment for merchandise and then stolen it back.

How about he just takes her back to the United States with him? Nope. Immigration from Cambodia has been halted, he is informed, in part to prevent Americans from bringing back sex slave children who are totally dependent on them.

Could he just hang out with her where they are now in Cambodia, or somewhere in Southeast Asia? That’s not too promising either, since the bad guys—who, like I say, are well-connected with organized crime and/or crooked cops—are already looking for the both of them.

If he can scrape together enough money, he’d be willing to pay the brothel for her, to reimburse them for what they bought her for and whatever extra they insist on for their profit. But the problem with that option is that every time someone buys a slave out of slavery, it increases the incentive for slavery. If he buys her, all that will happen is they’ll force some other hapless child into sex slavery to replace her, or maybe two or three, since they can now hope that some more soft-hearted Americans will be willing to pay handsomely to rescue them.

It’s painted as a pretty hopeless situation, at least when it comes to one individual trying to save one girl. Or maybe hopeless even beyond that. According to an old creepy German guy Klaus who strikes up a conversation with Patrick in a bar, even if you could somehow stop Westerners coming to Southeast Asia as sex tourists (which you can’t), that wouldn’t change anything, since it’s been a part of the culture in that part of the world for poor families to sell their daughters into sex slavery since “long before we got here.” (I’m skeptical of that, by the way. There would be a huge drop in demand if Westerners ceased paying for child prostitutes. It wouldn’t reduce demand to zero, so I suppose by itself it wouldn’t be enough to end child prostitution in Southeast Asia, but I’d have to think it would shrink it a great deal. I think ol’ Klaus is rationalizing his own participation.)

By the way, I’ve never understood, or at least never felt, the appeal of this kind of sex. It’s not like it’s the kind of thing I’d be all gung ho to do if I weren’t holding myself back due to legal or moral concerns. Subtract that from the equation and I’d still have no interest. One, prostitution in general removes most if not all of the appeal of sex for me. (By far the biggest charge I get out of sex is when it constitutes some hot girl affirming my status as someone worthy of having sex with her. If I’m paying her, that’s the equivalent of buying a trophy rather than winning it legitimately. Where’s the appeal in that?) Two, 12 year olds (and that general age range) just aren’t hot to me.

My surmise is that for the people who indulge in this, the very fact that it’s taboo and you’re damaging someone and using them against their will (since they’ve been coerced into sex slavery and are not in any meaningful sense willing sex workers) is why they crave it, you know, as a kind of sadistic or giving-oneself-over-to-evil thrill. Not everyone. Probably some are genuinely sexually attracted to 12 year olds the way I might be attracted to women twice that age, or someone else might be attracted to midgets or horses or what have you, and the fact that having sex with the people they most desire unavoidably victimizes them is something they see as a major negative, even if they can somehow rationalize it to themselves as a price they’re willing to pay. But I’ll bet for the majority of the customers, the victimization, the violence, is a positive, not some regrettable undesired byproduct.

Watching this film, it was easy to put myself in Patrick’s shoes, as least as far as the desire to make a genuine connection with one of these girls, prove to her that there are good people in the world who mean her well, and rescue her. If I were ever in his situation, I’m sure I would have very much that same impulse. It’s like walking through an animal shelter and instantly wanting to take one of the inmates home (or really to save all of them).

By the way, for movie purposes, they made Holly very receptive to this impulse since they didn’t want to muddy the message by showing her as anything other than a pure and blameless victim, whereas in real life I’ll bet 95% of girls in her situation would have just stolen his wallet once he let his guard down, and then laughed about what a sap he is back with their friends in the brothel.

Another thought that occurred to me in reflecting on the subject matter of this movie is that I wonder if other forms of child labor aren’t just as worthy of outrage as this, though they would never receive it.

Let’s say that when families were desperate and out of other options, instead of selling their 12 year old daughters into sex slavery so drunken middle-aged foreigners could take turns raping them, they hired them, and children even younger, out to work in Dickensian factories for 12 hours a day, or for that matter put them to work doing brutal, back-breaking physical labor on farms all day every day. Is that really so much better? And that’s not even hypothetical; children have been working in such conditions since time immemorial, and still do.

Actually, I think it’s a pretty fucked up world we’ve created that any adults have to live that way in order to survive, let alone children. I’m not minimizing the evil of the sex trafficking of children, just saying it’s one of many horrors humans have concocted to torture their fellow man and woman. So it’s not like as long as we’re not flying to Cambodia to screw little kids we’re blameless as far as participating in demand that fuels terrible abuse. Really all of us who are not hyper-meticulous about exactly where every product and service we purchase comes from, step-by-step, to ensure that there’s no taint of slave labor or the like anywhere in the process are little better than Klaus.

A solid movie on an important subject that held my interest reasonably well throughout and provides plenty to think about. It’s a little simplistic in its portrait of good and evil I suppose, but Holly is worthy of at least a modest thumbs up.

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