Seaside thriller centers on tale of modern-day slavery

Kea (Mony Ros) and Chakra (Sarm Heng) face the fishing trawler’s dictatorial captain (Thanawut Kasro) in Buoyancy. (Photos courtesy of Kino Lorber)

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).

Sarm Heng as 14-year-old Chakra

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

Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.

The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.

It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”

As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.

The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.

Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).

Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”

A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000,, or For information on future tour stops, visit