Cambodia, the present day. Fourteen-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng) works for his father’s rice business. Kept back from school, he’s worked hard for little reward and no chance of inheritance as he isn’t the first-born. Increasingly resenting this, he runs away and crosses the border into Thailand, looking for paid work. However, he’s soon sold to Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro), the captain of a fishing boat, and forced to work for nothing until he drops.
Despite its setting, and dialogue in Khmer and Thai throughout, this is an Australian film, a debut feature by writer/director Rodd Rathjen, a Victoria College of Arts graduate. Buoyancy plays like a thriller: will Chakra escape or be killed and thrown overboard, or will he be groomed by Rom Ran, who sees something in him he likes? It also shows us an aspect of modern slavery many are not aware of. A closing caption tells us that an estimated 200,000 men and boys are kept in slavery and forced labour in the Southeast Asian fishing industry, which is worth some $6 billion, supplying fish and fish products worldwide. Rathjen based his film on the testimonies of a number of survivors, with the majority of the cast non-professional actors.
Much of the run time is spent on the rapport between Rom Ran and Chakra. The older man clearly sees himself in the teenager and maybe Chakra’s future lies in commanding a similar boat overseeing a similar crew of slaves. Whether he wants to accept that fate or escape it, to survive Chakra has to become as ruthless as his would-be mentor. The slaves who do try to escape are thrown overboard to drown and literally used as food for the fishes the boat is out to harvest.
While certainly harrowing, Buoyancy steers clear of being too graphic, when it could easily have been so. This is particularly true at the midway point when a rebelling slave is brutally killed, with the gory details kept off-screen. In Australia, the film has the advisory M rating. If it were to be submitted to the BBFC, it would almost certainly receive a 15, as much for language as for violent content.
Buoyancy is a well paced and compelling film on an important subject. In Australia, it won the AACTA Award for Best Indie Film, and was Australia’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar, though unlike Tanna four years earlier, it didn’t make the final shortlist.
Buoyancy opens virtually at New York's Film Forum and across the US from September 11.