Buoyancy is vital viewing.
Telling the distressing tale of the torture and exploitation found in the Thai fishing industry, Australian director Rodd Rathjen directs his debut feature with a startling sense of urgency and an empathetic eye. In recognising the severity of the situation facing thousands of people across South East Asia, he noticed the distinct lack of information travelling from these countries to the rest of the world. Therefore, in portraying a story that’s practically unknown, the responsibility of telling it authentically is key – and Buoyancy does exactly that.
Perhaps what best reflects Rathjen’s honest aspirations – as told in a post-screening Q&A at the Melbourne International Film Festival – is how its production was conceived. There, he detailed the obligation of everybody involved to give a voice to the film’s sobering subject matter, and as such, the sheer commitment rose above the poor conditions on set. Even though none of the cast and crew (consisting of Australians, Cambodians, Thais, and Vietnamese Burgese) spoke the same language, everyone was dedicated to spreading awareness and giving a voice to the voiceless by making this film. The results are remarkable.
Buoyancy follows Chakra (Sarm Heng), an innocent Cambodian boy yearning for a better life from his monotonous work at the rice fields. Despite his intentions for a factory job, he is unwittingly sold and enslaved on a fishing trawler, and must undergo several gruelling life lessons in order to survive and escape his monstrous captors. On premise alone, Buoyancy is one of the most important films of the year and demands to be seen. However, the film’s merits come not only from the urgency of its piercing message but from its affecting veracity, as Rathjen conjures beauty and compassion from an otherwise devastating tale. His gritty psychological journey expresses itself through character rather than narrative: it’s a deeply poignant study on dehumanisation that tackles the effect of human trafficking and forced labour in a way that rightfully deviates from classic Hollywood thrills for a much more ruminative and grounded experience. Rathjen’s narrative focus isn’t so much on what happens on the boat but rather how it affects Chakra and the other slaves. By pulling the camera back and letting moments be, without rocking the boat with elaborate storytelling, Buoyancy calmly explores how such dire circumstances can change people, shift alignment and ultimately force ideas and mindsets that never should be placed upon anyone – especially children.
Casting is therefore key to achieving the film’s authenticity, and the supporting cast alone complete Buoyancy’s vision. Led by Thanawut Kasro as the captain Rom Ram, and Saichia Wongwirot as his right-hand man, Kadir (with a touching performance from Mony Ros as Kea, a fellow captive seeking work to aid his family), the film fills every moment they have on screen with an overwhelming feeling of tension which never ceases its impact. This comes from their control over the ship – which is illicit and extremely erratic – that slowly fuels the captives with dread. They never know exactly what Rom Ram and Kadir are thinking or how they will act, which only adds to their fearful presence.
It’d be an outright crime to say anything about Buoyancy without mentioning Sarm Heng’s phenomenal portrayal of Chakra, who commands this story in one of the greatest young performances I’ve ever seen. At only 14 years of age, Chakra’s journey of degradation is soul-crushing to witness – Sarm seeps into the role with a level of nuance and restraint that seems unbelievable for a first-time actor. Chakra acts as the audience’s gateway into the story, allowing Rathjen and cinematographer Michael Latham to approach the visual tone of the film through an adolescent perspective, bringing forth fragments of wonderment and hope in the face of an unquestionably cruel and repellent situation. Latham’s cinematography best embodies this: he frames the ocean as a beautiful and spiritual setting, where its vastness evokes a sense of awe in Chakra, who – despite being a place fueled with brutality and animosity – is still just a child.
14 is an age full of growth and insight, where we face the tribulations of self-discovery and failure on a daily basis – but to undergo that as a slave on a Thai fishing boat is an experience that so few of us can even grasp. Perhaps Rathjen’s greatest accomplishment is allowing us to understand, and in turn, empathise, by telling this tale of a young boy trying to learn and develop in the most gruelling of environments. Because under the surface, Buoyancy is a coming of age story, and that prospect is too heartbreaking to bear.
Buoyancy is now showing in Australian cinemas.
George Kapaklis is a Melbourne-based film student and writer who attempts to imbue his obsessive love of musicals and ABBA into everything he does. He’s rather fond of movies of all kinds and writes about them far too often on Letterboxd. You can find him on Twitter at @GeorgeKapaklis.