'Buoyancy': Film Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A harrowing edge-of-your-seat adventure tale with social punch.

A Cambodian boy looking for a better life is sold into slavery aboard a Thai fishing trawler in Rodd Rathjen’s first feature, Australia’s Oscar submission.

Australia’s hopeful in the Oscar’s reinvented International Feature Film category is the shocking adventure drama Buoyancy, shot in Cambodia with Khmer and Thai dialogue. It turns what could have been another sad immigrant story into a stomach-tightening actioner with overtones of social horror in key scenes of mistreatment, torture and revenge. Making a noteworthy leap from short filmmaking, writer-director Rodd Rathjen brings both drama and empathy to the tale of a rebellious 14-year-old who immigrates from Cambodia to Thailand following a promise of factory work, only to find himself a prisoner aboard a slave ship where human life is worth less than a sardine.

The film has been wending an unobtrusive path through festivals since it won the Ecumenical jury award in the Berlin Panorama but now is emerging in limited theatrical release to coincide with its bid to become an Academy Award nominee. Though grippingly shot and paced, its realism makes it not an easy watch. However, one never questions the horrific circumstances in which the protag finds himself and the ending provides a bitter sort of closure and enough salve on the wounds to make the story palatable.  

Even before he decides to run away from home, the bright Chakra (Sarm Heng) is a slave worker — for his family. While his peers go to school, he hauls heavy sacks and sows rice in paddies without pay or any hope of inheriting land from his father because he isn’t the first-born. All the future holds for him is a roof over his head and a lifetime of back-breaking work for his older brother. Rathjen’s screenplay quickly and convincingly lays out the boy’s one option: sneaking across the border into Thailand in search of paid work. It's a risk and he knows it, but it seems worth taking.

While the setup (and dozens of previous immigrant films) cue the audience that bad things are in store for Chakra, what actually happens beggars belief. Had Rathjen not directed the story with such implacable calm, it would read like pure fiction concocted for narrative effect, instead of reflecting documented reality in the China Sea.

After a hellish crossing into Thailand, Chakra and a group of men from his area find themselves prisoners in a remote factory under armed guard. Then he is sold to the captain of a fishing boat, where the unwilling sailors are treated like animals and made to work until they drop. They are forbidden to talk and even Chakra’s bonding with an older man (Mony Ros) proves dangerous. When the man’s weaker character cracks under pressure, the boy learns to mask his human feelings and makes a difficult decision.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking aspect of all this is the migrants’ gradual disillusionment. At the beginning they still hope to earn money by shoveling immense hauls of tiny fish, day after day, into the reeking hold. Captain Rom Ran, played with virile evil by Thanawut Kasro, tells them the decaying mess in the pit will be turned into dog food, which no one really believes. The captives’ first grumbles are met with knock-out punches by the three-man crew, and later with chains. They are well out to sea when the truth about their situation becomes evident. Those who try to escape by swimming to another boat or to shore are literally fed to the fish. One man who makes an attempt on the captain’s life is strung between two boats and meets a grisly fate. It is at this point that Chakra decides to stop being a victim and think his way out of a seemingly impossible predicament. Rathjen underscores the need for him to use violence — in fact, to become as violent as his captors — and the final scenes are gut-wrenching.

In such a closed-set character drama, casting plays a big role and it is impressive. Non-pro Heng’s sensitive face runs through a full medley of feelings and keeps the audience on his side, as he moves from teenage rebellion to full-on terror on the road to manhood. Smaller parts offer poignant moments, like Sareoun Sopheara as Chakra’s stern, distant father and Ros as his shattered friend. Kasro, who is also a stuntman and director, is razor-sharp and scary as the trawler’s captain, who can't help but admire the sight of an innocent boy becoming ruthless.

Technical work keeps it stark and simple both in Bethany Ryan’s production design aboard the ghost ship and cinematographer Michael Latham’s emphasis on individual characters outlined against an empty sky.

Production company: Causeway Films
Cast: Sarm Heng, Thanawut Kasro, Mony Ros, Saichia Wongwirot, Yothin Udomsanti, Chan Visal, Chheung Vakhim, Sareoun Sopheara
Director-screenwriter: Rodd Rathjen
Producers: Samantha Jennings, Kristina Ceyton, Rita Walsh
Executive producers: Paula Smith Arrigoni, Alicia Brown, Jonathan Duffy, Jeff Harrison, Kate Kennedy, Bryce Menzies, Jonathan Page, Rithy Panh, Michele Turnure-Salleo
Director of photography: Michael Latham
Production designer: Bethany Ryan
Costume designer: Salin Kuong
Editor: Graeme Pereira
Music: Lawrence English
Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (International Competition)

World sales: Charades
92 minutes