BUOYANCY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Rodd Rathjen

Stars: Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, Mony Ros

This Australian/Cambodian co-production was Australia’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2019. The dialogue is a mix of Khmer and Thai language.

Buoyancy is a grim and gruelling and thought-provoking drama that deals with the issue of people smuggling and slavery within the Thai fishing industry, a business worth $6 billion a year. It is estimated that some 200,000 young men have been enslaved by the fishing trade. It is a brutal, inhumane and harsh work environment for these young men and this film is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of the unpoliced industry.

Inspired by true stories, Buoyancy follows Chakra (played by Sarm Heng in his film debut), a 14-year old Cambodian who leaves his family to find work in Thailand, which will hopefully pay better than working in the rice fields of his remote rural village. But Chakra falls for the promises of ruthless brokers who offer him an opportunity to work at a factory in Thailand. But he is shanghaied by people smugglers and sent to work on a fishing trawler under the command of the sadistic Rom Ran (Thai actor and filmmaker Thanawut Kasro, from The Cave, etc). The menial work of unloading the catch is repetitive and physically demanding and takes its toll. Ran is a sadistic bully, and anyone who defies his authority or questions him is quickly thrown overboard. Chakra quickly learns survival skills, and it soon becomes clear that Ran recognises some potential in Chakra.

Much of Buoyancy is set at sea on the fishing trawler, and is a fairly claustrophobic, relentlessly grim and tense experience. This is the feature film debut for Victorian filmmaker Rodd Rathjen, who has previously made a handful of short films. His direction here is assured and unflinching as he turns an outsider’s perspective on the cruel nature of the business and the brutal treatment of these indentured youths. His handling of the controversial subject matter is sensitive and not exploitative, and although he doesn’t pull his punches, he avoids sensationalism. His script is sparse and lean but draws upon the stories of many who have survived the experience and managed to return home to lend authenticity to the material.

Buoyancy has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael Latham (Strange Colours, etc), who comes from a documentary background. His background shows in the ways he carefully composes his shots. Latham also captures some great contrasts between the lush green fields of Cambodia and the sun-drenched open waters of the ocean. He often shoots the action from Chakra’s point of view, which lends an unexpected intimacy to the material.

Heng’s performance is largely wordless, but the young inexperienced actor manages to convey the character’s inner thoughts and resilience, and delivers an insightful, intelligent and nuanced performance in a fairly physical role. Kasro gleefully captures Ran’s sadistic nature and imbues him with a dangerous charisma and dark charm. He has a compelling screen presence. Kasro actually worked on a fishing trawler for a couple of years and this experience has obviously informed his performance.

Buoyancy blurs the line between fiction and documentary and the film has that undeniable ring of truth. Rathjen hopes that his film will highlight the cruel exploitation of these vulnerable young men from impoverished backgrounds and prompt some action from the relevant authorities.

Some audiences may find that the scenes of unloading the catch and sorting through the fish become a bit repetitive. But this is a powerful, visually stunning and provocative film and an assured debut from a local filmmaker to watch.

★★★☆

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