This is an intriguing first feature from director Andrew Thomas Hunt. It narrates the story of a mute Russian girl called Karma who travels to Canada in order to avenge her sister. Gone missing after being trafficked and forced into prostitution, the sister is believed to be dead after a body is found which appears to have been executed and dumped.
Karma follows her sister’s footsteps to Canada, where she tracks down the unscrupulous mob which forced her into the sex trade. We see other girls being met at the airport and the bleak induction to their new lives. The gang are ruthless and unsympathetic, the surroundings grim, the small motel rooms where the girls are locked in are dingy, and the whole movie is filmed in a grainy cinema vérité style, which would not look out of place as a gritty exposé of the sex industry on BBC2 or More 4.
We see the girls’ will being broken as they are shown how to pole dance in a small and grim motel room. The harshness with which they are spoken to is raw and this is reflected by filming in available light, which suits the set up: low-light lowlife.
The first burst of violence is all the more powerful for being sudden and breaking the spell of the docu-drama. You also almost do not expect it from the sweet-looking Karma, as she does not use big loud weapons, but rather she improvises with whatever is at hand, be that a plank of wood or a pencil. Admittedly, some of it is a little far-fetched, but you find yourself waving your thinking hat away. It is, after all, an action-packed revenge thriller!
The story was prompted by the real life facts of existing prostitution rings which would see Russian girls travelling to what they expect to be blue collar work and finding themselves broken into prostitution and essentially held hostage by professional gangs.
Sadly, this is a story most western countries know quite well. Girls are promised cleaning jobs abroad and when they get to their destination they find themselves raped, their spirit broken and their passports confiscated until they earn enough money to buy them back.
The lead is played by newcomer and former model, Shera Bechard, who has already gained plaudits for her debut. The role requires that she expresses herself through non-verbal acting, as her lead never utters a word, a minimalist take on the femme revenge action thriller, or a post-modern homage to the silent screen, and the script is so good that you sometimes forget she is not actually speaking a word.
Other characters’ assumptions, actions and dialogue advance the plot, although the character of Karma is no mere bystander who reacts to what is happening around her. Unlike a few recent movies where female leads fight and shoot their way through dozens of baddies with the dexterity of cartoon characters and barely get a scratch at the end of it all, she displays no superhuman strength. She just acts out her own vigilante revenge based on her anger.
The narrative is fast-paced, but director Hunt knows when to slow it down enough to keep the characters human without losing his grip on the build up of tension, as we get closer to the final resolution of Karma’s quest.
Although it pushes the limits of credibility on a couple of occasions, the film never falls into easy sentimentality or contrived feel-good resolutions. It has a realistic feel and all the performances are nuanced just right.
The DVD is quite spartan, with no extras apart from two Dolby options and a theatre trailer included. One word of warning, though: do not watch the film extracts shown on the menu as you wait to make your selection. Way too much is revealed, and it would spoil your enjoyment of the movie.
Sweet Karma is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.