By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY — The problem with films that use a real social issue as an emotional and thematic backdrop is that, unless the story is as compelling as the problem it’s attempting to address, it often seems like they would be more effective as a documentary. That said, creating a narrative around a real world issue can be as entertaining as it is informative; it’s no surprise that many of the best works of art fall under this category. If executed well, the weaving of fiction and non-fiction can add a layer of depth, making the overall experience poignant and meaningful. If it is not executed well, however, the weight of the subject matter may be hampered.
She Has a Name falls slightly toward the latter, unfortunately. While the central theme of child prostitution and sex trafficking certainly demands attention and intrigue, the film’s secondary themes and subplots are much less interesting than the main plot, which makes the film less enjoyable than it might have otherwise been.
That said, the film has a lot of strengths. The introduction scene is a real doozy. We see the world that the titular “She” lives in: a gritty storage container in Thailand which operates as a makeshift brothel, replete with captured underage girls forced to work in the most terrible of conditions. Dim lights flicker inside the cold, metallic hallway and the depraved groans of wealthy tourists seeking their cheap thrills echo throughout. It’s not a pretty sight. Immediately, we want nothing more than someone to rescue these girls from their enslavement.
Enter Jason (Giovanni Mocibob), an American lawyer who poses as a john to gather information against a pimp who is trafficking girls into Thailand. He meets a 15-year-old girl with no official designation other than “Number 18” (Teresa Ting). Throughout the film, Jason attempts to gain her trust, hoping that her testimony will be enough to build his legal case. However, as the slave owners begin to catch wind of Jason’s plan, he realizes that he has put her life, and his case, at risk.
It’s a powerful story, undoubtedly. Yet, the film is unable to maintain the urgent tone set up in the introduction. In fact, the scenes that take place outside of Thailand (shot in Alberta) seem to be of an almost different quality altogether. By stark contrast, it looks and feels much more like an independent film, which is strange. Of course, having an independent quality is not a bad thing in itself and should never be source of critique, but it gives the film a rather inconsistent aesthetic which distracts from the experience.
Furthermore, the scenes between Jason and his wife back home don’t particularly add any weight to the story, despite their attempt to do so. Likewise, the exchanges between John and his employer seem entirely unnatural, with too much dependence on exposition to keep the audience in the loop – a big old screenwriting no-no. The acting between the two of them is hammed-up as well. These scenes ultimately work against any tension the film has created to that point, and, ideally, a film that address such heavy themes shouldn’t be lacking in tension.
Overall, She Has a Name succeeds as an independent, locally-produced film with some impressive cinematography, a gritty set design, and an eye-opening look into the world of Asian prostitution rings. Despite some weak acting, everything feels genuine – from the seedy red-light district bars to the shady locals and the even worse tourists. This is a film made with good intent, and it manages to raise awareness to an important issue while being sufficiently entertaining. For that, we can forgive a bit of cringe-worthy dialogue.
Buy She Has a Name on iTunes in early 2017. Soundtrack available now on Apple Music.AB, Alberta, child slavery, She Has A Name