By Richard Ades
It’s fitting that I watched Buoyancy on Labor Day weekend. The film is about a boy whose quest for honest work turns him into a virtual slave aboard a Southeast Asian fishing trawler.
Though designed as a tense thriller by Australian writer/director Rodd Rathjen (making an assured feature-length debut), the film also documents a real-life tragedy that entraps thousands of boys and men who are simply trying to better themselves.
The protagonist is Chakra (Sarm Heng), a 14-year-old Cambodian who resents having to work in the fields for pay he’s then forced to turn over to his father. After hearing about the wages that can be made in Thai factories, he steals away one morning for a prearranged rendezvous with men who will smuggle him over the border along with other job-seekers.
There he meets a stranger named Kea (Mony Ros) who has misgivings about what they’re getting themselves into but needs to make money for his wife and family. Kea smells trouble when they’re ordered to board a ship that supposedly will take them to their factory, but by then it’s too late. He and Chakra are forced to join the beleaguered crew of a fishing boat captained by the brutal and dictatorial Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro).
Scenes aboard the trawler paint a picture of exhaustion and misery. Chakra and fellow crew members spend their days shoveling netfuls of tiny, wriggling fish that reportedly are bound for pet food. At night, the men eat meager bowls of rice before settling down to sleep on the floor of the ship’s hold.
Through it all, Chakra faces each task with the kind of dogged determination he apparently learned growing up in harsh poverty. He even curries favor with the captain by personally giving him the larger fish that occasionally end up in the net.
Others, however, are less resilient. In some cases, their bodies give out; in others, they attempt to escape or rebel against their captors. In each instance, the captain and his underlings maintain order by responding with ruthless and sometimes creative sadism.
The film’s largely silent scenes of day-to-day misery and casual cruelty, masterfully depicted by director Rathjen and cinematographer Michael Latham, capture the sense of numbing hopelessness anyone in that situation would feel. Anyone but someone as young and adaptable as Chakra, that is, who is gradually transformed by what he’s seen and endured. Despite being a fledgling actor, Sarm Heng handles the change with understated power.
A sad story with a climax that’s both exciting and disturbing, Buoyancy earns its stripes as a thriller without undermining the real-world tragedy it seeks to expose.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Buoyancy (no MPAA rating) opens Sept. 11 via the Wexner Center’s virtual cinema series. For information, visit wexarts.org.