• Carice Van Houten in ‘Red Light’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Carice Van Houten stars in this series that twists the tale of human trafficking. Streaming now at SBS On Demand.
Cat Woods

28 Jul 2021 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2021 - 9:00 AM

Human trafficking and prostitution stories have been prominent in the media over the past few years, especially with the rise in migrants seeking refuge from warzones, the economic crises in Europe and the growing poverty in Asia fuelling a trade in young women particularly. Abuse and violence within human trafficking cases has only worsened during COVID-19 according to the UN. It’s typically men who are depicted as the kingpins of trafficking, but Belgian–English drama Red Light has twisted the tale and exposed a moral grey zone.

The nefarious trade in human beings – human trafficking – predominantly targets women and children for sexual exploitation, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The same investigation found that in 30 per cent of countries where gender information on traffickers was provided, women made up the majority of traffickers of women. 

In Red Light, women are both victims and perpetrators of crimes against other women and youth, but their own suffering and desperation is the motivation, so despite the inability to fully sympathise with any of them, it is also impossible to despise them. Like so many recent European dramas taking deep-dives into the murky moral grey zones of lives behind news headlines – such as Follow the Money and Bad BanksRed Light does not seek to present crimes as forgivable because of the sympathetic stories of protagonists, but to probe their motivations and, ultimately, to expose the roots of where injustice begins. It won’t surprise anyone that crime thrives, ultimately, as a consequence of ingrained social and political inequities, racism and misogyny.  

Many Game of Thrones (GoT) fanatics will watch this show to see Carice Van Houten, and she is transformed and entirely convincing as Antwerp brothel owner Sylvia. Sylvia, with her brittle peroxide-blonde hair, pin-thin body and bristling, nervous energy, is a far cry from the priestess Melisandre in GoT. She is a nuanced woman, Sylvia.  As Red Light progresses, the old trope of the “hooker with a heart of gold” that has infiltrated popular fiction and drama for generations is inescapable. Don’t let that put you off though, for Sylvia is compelling and the script is clever and layered.

The premise is that opera singer Esther’s husband disappears while seemingly on a business trip. In trying to understand what led to his disappearance, she traces his last known sighting to Antwerp’s notorious Red Light district. Here, Sylvia is the owner of a popular sex club/bar, though even this is not as it appears. Despite being the owner in paperwork and title, it is Sylvia’s brutish and manipulative boyfriend Ingmar who evidently pulls the strings. Sylvia and Esther become unwittingly involved in one another’s lives, connected by what they know – and don’t know – about Esther’s husband. Police investigator Evi, battling alcoholism and the grief of her motherless childhood, makes up the trifecta of flawed, clever, resilient women in Red Light.

Though sex work is legal in Belgium, soliciting and pimping are not. The real money is in trading young girls and women from Eastern Europe – mostly Bulgaria and Romania – who become enslaved to the business due to their lack of legal status in the country. Ingmar and Sylvia have a murky but long-running system in place to attract young women who are deprived of job opportunities and economic prosperity in their own countries to ‘bar jobs’. Upon arrival, the reality is being homed in hotels and trailer parks while working long hours having sex with strangers to line Ingmar’s pockets, in the end. Sylvia, despite her bravado and cunning ability to lie to police and the girls who entrust her with their lives, is Ingmar’s ultimate victim.

This series is about women, ultimately, and the grey zones we exist in – and the redemptive power of loyalty to one another that always elevates these women above being considered totally corrupt. Co-produced, written and directed by women, it was justifiably recognised and rewarded last year, winner of Best Series at Cannes International Series Festival and Best TV Drama at the Nederlands Film Festival.

Red Light is now streaming at SBS On Demand.

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