“According to a report from the United Nations, 71 per cent of all human trafficking victims are women and girls. Human trafficking earns profits of roughly $150 billion a year.”
This information is relayed via a title card at the end of Moving Parts, a film (directed by Emilie Upczak) that dramatizes the experience of one victim of this worldwide epidemic. Set in Trindad and Tobago, a country whose proximity to international shipping lanes makes it an ideal spot for this sort of criminal activity, it is the story of Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian from Juno and 21 Jump Street), a Chinese woman who travels to the island nation after the death of her father.
Zhenzhen’s brother Wei (Jay Wong) has already established a home in Trinidad and Tabago, making a meager living working construction. Though he’s happy to be reunited with his sister, he is understandably cautious. Zhenzhen was granted passage by smugglers, and when she arrives, the slimy leader of the gang advises Wei that if he doesn’t pay the transit debt, his sister will be sold off to make up for the loss.
Wei manages to find Zhenzhen a room and employment at a local restaurant; when she expresses concern over the living conditions and her job prospects, he reminds her, “We are here to work.” It’s a bleak reflection of the situation many immigrants face when arriving somewhere new—the struggle doesn’t end after fleeing home. It’s a frustrating, maddening truth that we’ve watched play out in our own country: opportunity doesn’t equal freedom. And as evidenced by the debt Zhenzhen owes to the smugglers, the price of searching for a better life is often an insurmountable obstacle. Moving Parts positions this problem as the main dramatic tension of the film; the threat of the human traffickers returning for Zhenzhen looms heavily as Wei attempts to scrape together enough money—he asks for an advance from his construction boss to no avail, and so he turns to the mahjong tables, gambling the little cash he has and hoping for a windfall.
And Zhenzhen takes a gamble of her own. The proprietor of the restaurant (Jacqueline Chan) leads Zhenzhen to a red-lit lounge filled with young women and scores of shady men. “Here you make all the money you need,” she tells Zhenzhen. “What other choice do you have?” And soon, Zhenzhen is working nightly as a prostitute, cobbling together cash to stall the traffickers and downing the drinks her clients supply in order to numb the pain of her new reality.
Moving Parts is partially an examination of how desperation so often leads to recklessness; it produces an anxiety in the viewer because it’s impossibly easy to see where it all ends. Cinema offers us space to chart and predict a series of consequences from a perch of relative comfort; we can wince from safety, shaking our heads even with the understanding that we might in fact make similar choices under the gun.
Aiming for something more here, Moving Parts becomes an issue film. Its intention to raise awareness and train the spotlight on human trafficking’s destructive stranglehold is, particularly in proximity to young women from impoverished backgrounds, laid very bare. And that’s why the film’s deficiencies from a dramatic standpoint are especially apparent. The success of this narrative relies on the viewer’s understanding of Zhenzhen, of the slow suffocation of her agency and humanity. And while Tian is doing some fine work, especially in portraying the silent extinguishing of Zhenzhen’s hope, the film otherwise observes her from a strange remove. And the screenplay (co-written by Upczak), supporting a slight 77-minute runtime, fractures into subplots precisely where Moving Parts could benefit from a steady focus.
The most glaring detour involves Evelyn (Kandys McClure), an artist who is opening an exhibit in a gallery across the street from the restaurant where Zhenzhen works. She’s given some scenes that flesh out her own personal struggles, mostly an overbearing father and a homeless brother. Early on, it seems that Moving Parts is setting up an important intersection of these stories, but aside from one chance encounter and a late-in-film scene, the two women run on parallel tracks that, while not entirely unconnected, aren’t in obvious conversation.
Upczak does guide the cast in subtle performances; along with Tian’s aforementioned turn as Zhenzhen, McClure’s Evelyn is a warm, engaging presence. And there are moments when Upczak demonstrates a keen artistic touch, such as a scene depicting the sex act with Zhenzhen’s first client. It is filmed by cinematographer Nancy Schreiber in close quarters, unceremonious, and nauseatingly so. Afterwards, Zhenzhen is framed alone in her ramshackle room, huddled naked in the corner, staring blankly. It’s during such moments that the film employs an effective cinematic point-of-view.
Zhenzhen is forced to endure the cruelty of men from all fronts. One of her clients turns out to be Evelyn’s father, a wealthy, seemingly decent businessman—we’re all culpable, the film seems to say, when those most vulnerable are manipulated and marginalized and abused. “Be invisible, stay invisible,” Zhenzhen tells herself. Moving Parts is a story about survival, both physical and psychological. And regardless of the efficiency or effectiveness of particular artistic choices, it’s the kind of story that demands to be told. And Moving Parts bravely does that. It’s an act of compassionate creation.
Moving Parts screens January 3, 6 and 7 at Gene Siskel Film Center.