SHE HAS A NAME (2016) – Film Review

While researching and evaluating films for inclusion in my upcoming online course, I came across this movie. The trailers intrigued me, primarily because of two factors: 1) the quality of the production looked higher than your typical independently-produced project, and 2) it looked like a film that highly regarded the sexual dignity of its actors. That was enough reason for me to check it out for myself, and I had enough thoughts to warrant a belated movie review for this 2016 film.

The film’s synopsis, as listed on the movie’s website, is simple:

Jason, a lawyer, poses as a john to build a legal case against a ruthless pimp who is trafficking girls in Asia. He meets Number 18, a girl forced to work as a prostitute in a busy red light district whose testimony is key to his case. 

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P). (C-A-P. Get it?)

CONTENT (C): 9 out of 10

With a nightclub being a major set piece of the film, there would have been ample opportunity to include lewd and indecent imagery and language. Instead of taking the easy (and perverted) path, the filmmakers chose instead to portray the red light district in a way that both respects actors and audiences.

As far as language goes, there are a few crass references (in a context in which those references are portrayed as morally reprehensible). The story is devoid, however, of gratuitous vulgarity.

As far as visuals go, there are a couple scenes on the main floor of a nightclub called The Pearl, where sex traffic victims dance on a raised stage. What makes this material stand out from your typical mainstream strip club scene is manifold: the dancers are almost fully clothed, their dances are choreographed in such a way to minimize sensuality, and the camera’s framing almost always downplays the significance of their presence. Whenever there’s a direct shot of a dancer (and there almost never is), it’s a close-up shot of the dancer’s head and shoulders, communicating only grief and sadness—not sensuality.

The initial interaction between Jason and Number 18 involves a few sexual gestures and instances of near-nudity that are rightfully uncomfortable, but it’s all based on Number 18’s confusion about Jason’s presence in her bedroom. (He’s trying to gather information, not use her body for his own pleasure.)

If sexual lust is a particular struggle for you right now, the above scenes may be a bit too much. In any case, it is obvious that the filmmakers actively chose to avoid exploitation while telling this story.

ARTISTRY (A): 8 out of 10

The outstanding cinematography showcased in the film’s trailers is evidenced throughout the movie. Even in the few cases that involve superfluous camera movements, the look of the film is gorgeous. I’ve not seen anything else shot by Bob Nguyen, but he has quite an eye for beautiful composition.

With rare exceptions, the acting is stellar. The international cast of characters is embodied by performers who know their craft well. Acting can sometimes be a bane to small budget productions; here, it is mostly an asset. The plethora of emotions inherent in a tragic story like this are communicated with believability by a talented cast.

While addressing a large-scale problem (the sex traffic industry), this is a small-scale story. Those looking for a large-scale treatment (especially when it comes to the few action set pieces) might be disappointed. Rather than involving parkour and complex pyrotechnics, the chase scenes here are more true-to-life. That’s not a detriment to the story; it just might not meet expectations for those accustomed to a high diet of Hollywood spectacle.

PREFERENCE (P): 8 out of 10

Based on my (admittedly limited) research, it seems that movies about the sex traffic industry succumb to one of two faults: exploitative storytelling techniques or sub-par production values.

On the exploitive end, graphic depictions of nudity and sexual violence inadvertently encourage audiences to participate voyeuristically in the narrative, conflicting with the intention of the filmmakers to condemn such actions.

On the other end of the spectrum, where gratuitous violence and nudity are avoided, sex trafficking movies are hindered by their low production budgets, which are often evidenced by poor acting. No actors may have been exploited in the production of such stories, but audiences might feel disconnected by lackluster performances.

She Has a Name navigates between these two extremes more successfully than not. Even the name of the movie itself communicates a sensitive approach to the story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using words like Trafficked or Caged in a movie title. Nevertheless, She Has a Name goes the extra mile in avoiding sensationalism (wallowing in the gritty brutality of sex trafficking), choosing rather to focus on the humanity of the those who are kidnapped, imprisoned, and exploited by others for financial gain.

It is admittedly tricky to use a visual medium like film to communicate the evils of sexual violence without glorifying sexual violence. But while such an approach is tricky, it is not impossible. Here’s hoping more movies will take a cue from the approach taken by She Has a Name.

CAP score: 83%

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