She Has A Name

Canada (2016) Dirs. Daniel Kooman & Matthew Kooman

The UN estimates over 2 million children a year are forced in sexual slavery on a global scale, with only 1% of them rescued. This terrifying statistic is shared at the end of this upsetting drama that was made not only to raise awareness of this problem but also to raise funds towards the various groups trying to do something about it.

A water truck passing across the borders of Thailand suddenly breaks down. The drivers run off to find alternate transport leaving the truck behind. The next morning, the news reports the fifty dead bodies found in the back of the truck, mostly young girls, were being trafficked from Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Jason (Giovanni Mocibob), an American lawyer, pays a visit to the brothels in Bangkok, stopping at The Pearl, run by the stone-faced Mama (Eugenia Yuan), offering him their best girl Number 18 (Teresa Ting). But instead of sex, Jason is working undercover to bust the trafficking ring and needs firsthand testimony to strengthen his case, and Number 18 just might be the one, if he can only get her to safety.

She Has A Name began life as a 2009 stage play by Andrew Kooman, inspired by a real life tragedy in which 54 people died whilst being smuggled into Thailand inside an airtight container. Kooman also drew on his own experiences meeting young children who were the victims of trafficking whilst working in Malaysia.

In translating the play to the screen, the Kooman brothers were able to film in Bangkok to give the story an authenticity the stage can’t provide, not just through the spatial expansion but the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of a different culture. Ironically, most of the significant moments occur in Number 18’s room – a tiny, dishevelled stone floored cell more like a prison than a seductive boudoir.

The script goes to great lengths to illustrate what we have already surmised – how demoralising, inhumane, and corrupt the commercial sex trade is – but seeks to inculcate that whilst we in the west take a high moral stance against this we are just as complicit in propagating it. In this case, US Ambassador Stevens (Joseph Adams) is in Thailand to sign a hugely beneficial trade deal, and just happens to be a major client of Mama’s boss Akkarat (Will Yun Lee), a sleazy, cutthroat pimp with Bangkok in his purview.

Jason isn’t working of his own volition despite writing a book to expose this practice, he is under the aegis of Marta (Deborah Fennelly), personally assigned by US senator Janet Mitchell (Bonnie Zellerbach). With Marta controlling the admin, Jason goes undercover to infiltrate the brothels, leading him to the possible trump card for his book, Number 18.

Photographic evidence of Stevens at The Pearl with underage prostitutes would have explosive ramifications; sadly, where there is sleaze there is corruption, and one man’s libidinous immorality is not enough to halt US business, putting a major spanner in the works for Marta and Jason. This conventional drama should jar next to the grimmer narrative yet fits in nicely with the venal practices of the perpetrators.

Number 18 is the nominal main victim of this saga – claiming to be 15 but possibly older, she reveals she was pimped out as early as 9 years-old in her native Cambodia. Now a veteran of the game, she is ready with every clichéd come on for her white clients, willing to satiate their every whim and peccadillo with the same robotic efficiency of a supermarket checkout operator.

There is a little girl lost behind the seductive façade, revealed in her first appearance as she sits forlornly on her bed just seconds before Mama opens the door and brings Jason to her. Kooman’s script never loses sight of this, also pertinent to the concurrent story of Mae (Vanessa Toh), the younger friend of Number 18 who managed to escape the water truck, now in a safe home.

As ever with a film like this, there is a tendency to be sententious with the manifesto and opinions of the writer, but Kooman is careful to avoid being overly didactic for the most part. The scene where Jason is Skyping his wife back home relaying what he has witnessed falls into this category, as does Jason’s reaction to a Canadian at The Pearl boasting that he took the virginity of a girl probably no more than 12 years-old.

Similarly, some of the characters are ready-made tropes, defined by their mien before they even speak, Akkarat and Mama are obvious examples, but given the lack of grace of the subject matter and known salacious nature of those involved, any subtleties and nuance afforded to them would feel wholly incongruous.

It is unlikely most of the cast will be well known, and if I’m being honest, some of the delivery is a bit stilted in places to support this, but overall, the acting is pretty good and suitable in creating a natural vibe the story demands. Unquestionably, newcomers Teresa Ting and Vanessa Toh are the standouts, both essaying the emotional duality of their characters in humanising two young girls reduced to being numbers and disposable meretricious products by a cruel world.

For an indie production on a modest budget, the presentation is top notch. The direction, camerawork, photography, lighting, music, editing, is absolutely to professional standard and I might be so bold as to add, better than many huge budget affairs too. Aesthetics are often a small part of a film but in this case, it really does elevate it above and beyond its humble status.

With its earnestness parlayed into a compelling, sobering and enlightening film, She Has A Name achieves what the Koorman brothers set out to do – brings home what a hideous, inhumane and sadly pertinent global issue human/sex trafficking is and it must be stopped.

You can watch this film on Amazon Prime now or visit the website to learn more:

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