Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, Mony Ros
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…a thrilling film which finds fleeting moments of beauty…
Detailing with precision an innocent child’s descent into the world of forced labour, Rodd Rathjen’s excellent feature debut Buoyancy is a brutal and painstaking account of the South-East Asian slave trade.
14-year-old Chakra (breakout first timer Sarm Heng) picks rice for his father (Sareoun Sopheara) on a Cambodian farm. Rewarded with a roof above his head and little else, Chakra is told by a friend of an opportunity in Thailand to do the same thing – yet earn significantly better pay.
Impressionable and sick of toiling on the rice fields, Chakra throws himself into the new world, glad to leave home and start a new life – only to find himself sold to a seafood trawler to work as a fisherman.
Initially told only the first month of work must be free, days and weeks soon go by – his situation quickly disintegrates.
The 14-year-old’s shipmates, those who don’t burn out from exhaustion – or attempt suicide – are routinely humiliated, tasered, thrown overboard by the boat’s sadistic captain, Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro).
A helpless innocent, Chakra can only watch as his colleagues on the trawler are stabbed, drowned and beaten, with the promise of improved conditions evaporating.
Focusing on specifics and little moments, the frequently wordless thriller thoroughly and empathetically conjures the misery of its victims’ experience: the gratitude for eating a little bowl of rice after working with no rest; the relief at getting off-board and into the water; the callouses on the workers’ soles. Its sharp-eyed and naturalistic approach blurs the line between documentary and fiction.
Rathjen gives significant attention to these details, placing viewers in the tormented condition of the film’s protagonist. (The writer-director conducted interviews with many young real-life survivors of the fishing slave trade).
Performed mostly by a cast of non-professionals in Thai and Khmer with English subtitles, audiences are immersed in a harrowing account.
This is aided by the penetrating cinematography of Michael Latham (Island of the Hungry Ghosts, the documentary-like feature Strange Colours), whose experience in non-fiction lends intimacy and familiarity to Chakra’s plight.
Atmospheric sound design by Sam Petty (The Rover, Animal Kingdom), and rhythmic editing by Graeme Pereira capture and enhance the film’s claustrophobic elements – the inescapable confines of the boat; the endlessness of the ocean and their situation; the constant repetition of the thud of the day’s fish; the waves which don’t cease.
As it races to its taut, breakneck finish, the film – which won the Panorama Prize at the esteemed 2019 Berlin Film Festival – offers viewers a brief ray of hope through the vital Chakra, an object of a fishing industry which reaps Thailand an estimated $6 billion a year.
Pulling no punches in its intently human rendering of the horrors of human trafficking, this is a thrilling film which finds fleeting moments of beauty – amongst infinite senselessness.