Holly (Thuy Nguyen) first appears on the run. Pursued by a couple of men, she’s picked up on a sidewalk and tossed into the back of a van. Dirty, disappointed, and just 12 years old, she hangs her head while the vehicle bumps along unfinished roads. “Almost home,” reports one of the men. When they arrive, Holly is tentative, unwilling to get off. Mama San (Montakan Ransibrahmanakul) cajoles her “little kitty,” drawing her forward, then grabbing her roughly: “You filthy dog,” spits the madame, “Run away again, I kill you.”
The opening scenes of Guy Moshe’s Holly lay out the child’s grim no-future. Made concurrently with a documentary on child sex traffic in Southeast Asia (in support of the K11 Project), it focuses on Holly’s evolving relationship with Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American expat who gets by playing cards and carrying packages for a friend, Freddy (Chris Penn), in some illicit smuggling operation. The complexities of this relationship are introduced in Patrick’s first scene, which contrasts bleakly with Holly’s: immersed in a card game in Phnom Penh, encircled with smoke, he ponders his hand and mutters, “Money, money, money, money, easy money, money.” whether he’s drunk or just pretending to be drunk, Patrick appears to be losing control of the game: when he protests another player’s cheating, Freddy scoops him up and takes him outside.
Though Patrick insists he knows what he’s doing (“White guy looks like he goes bust, gets home safe”), he’s still established here as a tedious stereotype, yet another white man in a seedy setting in need of redemption. And Holly looks like just the ticket. During a smuggling run for Freddy, Patrick’s motorbike breaks down in the village where Holly’s being held; they meet in the bamboo hutch that passes for a bar, and he learns her mother has sold her into the sex trade.
Appropriately distraught, Patrick is even more bothered when he meets Klaus (Udo Kier), a regular at Mama San’s brothel. Their conversation sets the parameters of the indigenous sex trade and their own moral gradations. Patrick predictably resents Klaus’ assumption that they’re alike (“I don’t sleep with little girls, you sick fuck”). At the same time, Klaus pronounces his own limits: he prefers pubescent girls (around the age of his 14-year-old daughter back home), but doesn’t “go for the little ones” (the six-year-olds being shopped in back alleys). “They have a different set of values here,” Klaus sniffs. “Different morals. We cannot understand it.”
The sort of self-justifying offender who might be caught on MSNBC’s To Catch a Predator: Cambodia, Klaus claims he’s not responsible, only partaking of the native exotica. Patrick’s position is increasingly difficult (with nuances rendered in Livingston’s performance). His initial decision to rescue Holly is both ill-advised and ingenuous. The fact that she’s a virgin at first helps to set up his sense of mission, and when she is eventually forced to work (one of several scenes that show her apart from Patrick, as the film makes an earnest effort to show her separate emotional life, so she’s not only his plot object), he feels guilty. Still, he tends to see her in his own contexts: he imagines taking her back to her village in Vietnam (she imagines her mother and younger sister will welcome her home at the same time she also fears her mother will sell her sister if Holly comes back), or buying her outright and bringing her back to the States. The film also includes a couple of brief scenes that indicate Patrick’s struggle with his own drunkenness and dissolution (he watches her sleep, then showers, the discordant soundtrack and back-of-his-head camera angle suggesting his own (brief) struggle and self-interrogation.
Because Patrick’s desires are so confused and at times so blunt, the film includes a social worker, Marie (Virginie Ledoyen), who provides education for him and you. She appreciates his inclination to “do good,” but reminds him there are over 30,000 child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, a number likely to double by next year, and that if he purchases Holly, he’s only sustaining the system, raising prices for the next girls, contributing to sellers’ profits. Patrick asserts he only wants to “save one girl,” but he’s so unable to manage the local details of that project, so willfully ignorant concerning the broader effects of his own actions, that his desire again looks hopelessly naïve.
While Yaron Orbach’s camera repeatedly evokes Patrick’s naïveté and yearning, as he’s lost in shadows suffused with deep blue or green city lights, the setting also remains resolutely “foreign.” A film designed to “raise awareness” in oblivious Westerners of this particular sort of sex traffic, and much like Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade, Holly is earnest to a fault, its outrage and sense of purpose clearly aligned with the white guy who cannot figure out how to be the hero he imagines. His frustrations are comprehensible, his good intentions might even be admirable.
The representation of Holly’s self-understanding is a trickier business. She wants to be “stubborn” and tough” as Patrick suggests she is, but she’s also a child, afraid, alone, and traumatized. When she declares her love for Patrick, suggesting they “Go America, I wife you,” he pulls back, insisting she’s too young to “wife me.” Oh no, she clarifies, “I many men.” It’s a concept beyond Patrick’s ken, of course, and he reacts irrationally, with a series of bad decisions that leave both of them stranded. Holly argues that you must come to understand the “different set of values,” rather than exploit or absorb it into your own worldview.