Sweet Karma (2009)
Reviewed by Paul McCannibal
Starring Shera Bechard, John Tokatlidis, Frank J. Zupancic, Christian Bako
Directed by Andrew Thomas Hunt
The subject of human trafficking isn’t a pleasant one, but when you’ve got sex for sale and potential violent backlashes dished by family members of those trapped, shipped off, and disappeared, you just know that a brutal, justified revenge story is bound to make an appearance on film eventually.
Sweet Karma seizes on that ugly yet topical narrative potential and does a good job of treating it tactfully. It’s about a beautiful young Russian woman named Karma who travels to Canada via the underground sex slave circuit, breaking free on arrival to stalk and kill the pimps and mafia henchmen who took her sister away before she vanished. Our death-dealing protagonist is mute, which gives things an added level of intrigue – were it that we could hear this vigilante explain her actions and spit venomous one-liners at her prey before dispatching them, Sweet Karma would likely have a very different overall effect.
Director Andrew T. Hunt is well aware that this story has a confused moral compass – the obvious question is whether the viewer is taking any exploitive pleasure from the seedy scenes of booty on display in dive strip clubs and no-tell motels, and whether the director is putting such things in there for that reason, wittingly or unwittingly. There’s a fine line when the gloomier and uglier side of the sex industry is toyed with in a narrative. To point out the moral abhorrence of the topical selling point while trying to drive an entertaining and satisfying exploitation story of revenge is a very slippery slope.
That’s what makes Sweet Karma a cool effort. The film never titillates to the point that you feel like it’s hypocritical in its presentation. This movie achieves a good balance by keeping everything in a realm of shady out-of-the-way dive motels and warehouse district holes-in-the-wall, places you just wouldn’t want to be hanging around in filled with people you’d cross the street to avoid. The tone of the story never comes close to indicating that there’s some kind of worthwhile or excusable sleazy thrill lurking in this shadowy subculture. Anyone who sees this flick and gets a cheap titty-and-ass thrill is either not paying attention or seriously warped in the head.
That’s not to say there aren’t cheap thrills on display – it’s always pretty cool to see a total sleazebag thug get a nasty comeuppance they more than deserve, and that happens multiple times in this story. Any real life baddies who see this flick are going to think twice next time they get the chance to snort coke off of a stripper’s tits, that’s for sure!
There are some visual and aesthetic parallels to Nicholas Wending Refn’s Pusher films in Sweet Karma, particularly in the verité camera approach, the focus on the criminal underground, and the realist feel of the lighting. The cast is extremely solid considering it was all non-union. A certain nihilistic edge prevails in the hopelessness of pretty much every aspect of the story, but that’s what makes it work. To summarize, it’s well made and it delivers the goods if you’re into this kind of thing – just don’t go into this expecting a “feel good” movie, and exercise caution if you’re thinking of taking a first date to it!
Check it out if you get the chance while it’s on the festival circuit!
3 1/2 out of 5
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