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Photograph by Marco Nadel
THE TOUGH LIFE: Alicja Bachleda-Curus plays Veronica, caught up in the 'Trade.'

Of Human Bondage

An epidemic of sex slavery swamps this great land in hysterical 'Trade'

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE more than 300 million sex slaves in the United States, and this number is all the more alarming because I just made it up. But at least I'm not alone in such guestimation; how about 30-to-50,000 slaves living in the United States, a figure blue-skied by the noble organization Free the Slaves (, which is more focused on the skin trade in the Third World. Or the "1,000,000" being trafficked across borders (ours? all international borders?) cited at the end of the film Trade?

Make your own sex-slave census after reading the January 2004 New York Times piece "The Girls Next Door," the loose source for this dire melodrama. Peter Landesman's article takes a real evil and lards it thick with alarmism. For this quality, the piece received a long slow crock-potting on, with Slate's Jack Shafer doing the stirring: "Landesman's supporting evidence is vague. Where it is not vague, it is anecdotal. ... And where it is not anecdotal or vague it is suspicious and slippery."

Some of Landesman's sequences are re-created for the movie Trade. There is a horror-movie descent into a makeshift child brothel in the riverside reeds. Real Children of the Corn stuff, complete with scary twins a la The Shining dressed in white first communion dresses to inflame the lust of the customer.

There is some truth to this. The incident is based on a camp near the San Luis Rey River near Vista, Calif., where a prostitution ring was busted in 2001; "The Girls Next Door" says that 50 children ages 12 to 15 were being used by 400 customers, but try finding that number elsewhere.

Later at ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) headquarters in Washington, Landesman claims he helped agents find an online site where $300,000 buys a slave. At least Trade brings that implausible sum down to a 10th for a more reasonable $30,000, during Trade's eBay-style bidding war on a virgin. (Everybody loves the movie scene where our hero is sweating bullets, tapping his fingers on the computer.)

At least what's onscreen in Trade is only a movie. In the now familiar tag-team style, director Marco Kreuzpaintner (Summer Storm) leads a series of mixed characters through a sex-slave pipeline.

At the Mexico City airport, a Polish girl named Veronica (Alicja Bachleda-Curus) is taken away to a New Jersey brothel. She's placed in the same holding pen as Adriana (Pauline Gaitan), a 13-year-old snatched off the bicycle that her brother gave her for her birthday.

Her brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), tracks her all the way to Juarez. There he encounters a detective called Ray (Kevin Kline) and hops across the border in the trunk of his car. Ray is a man of few words, and unfortunately they're all Syd Fieldisms. Sample dialogue: "Why should I trust you?" "I don't think you have a choice."

Slowly, Jorge and Ray bond as they drive toward New Jersey. The ticking bomb is to rescue Adriana before her maidenhead is sold to some wealthy pervert.

Meanwhile Adriana and Veronica try to escape their captors. Their best chance comes in a New Mexico town, where neither has the temporary brains to go to the police who are sitting around right in front of them, watching a parade. Later, the long arm of chance gets carpal tunnel. The hero and one of the enslaved children bump into each other at the same restaurant. Like a yogi, the post-Babel movie insists, "There are no coincidences."

Kline is, as always, primarily a stage actor who has wandered in front of the camera. The Mexican interiors are of Saw-worthy squalor, but gringos get it, too. One widescreen empty shopping-center parking lot in New Jersey, studded with artlessly arrayed carts, reminds us of empty illusions of the American dream–we, as a people, really need to get our shopping carts in a row.

Perhaps Veronica and Adriana were smart to avoid the cops. In Jersey, the police do their usual exploitation movie "Our hands are tied" routine. This brings Klein to the climactic realization: "We are the fucking gringos!"

And so we are. Scriptwriter Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) lets the Yankees have it. We're decadents, who live in vast homes, fussing over our cats–Ray's wife sits around in the gloom, womb barren, mourning her pet. Yankees waddle up to underage sex slaves, slavering away, or shoot children with hypos in the neck. How very unlike the Mexican pimp (Marco Pérez) who feels sad about being in the flesh trade and prays to the Virgin every chance he gets. There's something like an alternate ending in Trade for the Latin market, to give them the knife-point revenge they wanted–right after the thin-blooded Americans get a less violent finale, stroking their belief that the system works.

Trade finishes with a quote, which isn't credited by name, from the anti-porn activist Laura Lederer: "We're not finding victims in the United States because we're not looking for them." It's a tantalizing comment along the lines of "the police are doing nothing," in that it sounds wise, pleases all (except for the cops, who don't count) and is ultimately completely unverifiable.

Movie Times TRADE (R; 119 min.), directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, written by Jose Rivera and Peter Landesman, photographed by Daniel Gottschalk and starring Kevin Kline and Alicja Bachleda-Curus, opens Sept. 21.

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