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Buoyancy

Released 2019. Director: Rodd Rathjen

BUOYANCY IS A NAIL-CLAWING THRILLER SET ON A FISHING VESSEL, a floating hell where human lives are worth less than the fish hauled up to make pet food. It’s an intense and suspenseful survival tale of human trafficking and how the poor are ruthlessly and expendably exploited.

Fourteen-year-old Chakra works on rice fields under the hot sun in rural Cambodia. His family is too poor to send him to school and Chakra doesn’t see a future for himself. After clashing with his stern father one too many times, Chakra runs away, believing he’ll find a job in a factory and earn real money in neighbouring Thailand. He meets up with strangers who are crossing illegally but as he has no money, the traffickers put Chakra and a few others in the same situation on a different path. They must know something is wrong when they are forced to board a fishing trawler. One man resists and is beaten up.

It becomes clear quickly the boat isn’t going to take them to any factory. They are already on the factory floor. This is where they’ll work, live, and more than likely die without ever stepping off the boat again.

Chakra stays close to a man named Kea whose hopes of making money to send home to his wife and kids are slipping away. The two form a quiet bond and look out for each other, never showing their fear no matter how harrowing their lives have become.

Always conscious of their precarious position, these captives toil in silence, wary of the sadistic and capricious owner of the trawler who delights in their suffering for his own entertainment. They wake before dawn, trawl the nets and sort the catch in never-ending physical labour. One cup of rice and one cup of water is all they get. One of the men stops, weakened and exhausted. He is simply thrown overboard by the gleeful captain as the rest watch in abject horror. Kea isn’t as fortunate when his time comes. With his hands and feet tied to the ends of two boats facing opposite directions, he's thrown in the waters and Chakra is forced to rev the engine to rip his friend’s body apart.

No longer a child but not yet a man, Chakra finds himself in a perilous situation worse than anything he's imagined. How long has it been? It’s hard to tell as the timeline is vague, but we can see Chakra’s shirt getting more faded and tattered.

Chakra’s situation reminds me of Jesse Pinkman in TV's Breaking Bad, when he’s enslaved to work in a meth lab, chained and forced to live in a hole in the ground, never to taste freedom again. The feeling of dread is similar, knowing full well there is no escape, being condemned to a fate worse than death. Chakra also bears resemblance to the boy Zain in Capernaum, in their physical appearance, their expressive face and their incredible persistence to save themselves.

I don’t know if the cast are professionals or inexperienced locals but they are scarily good in their roles. Sarm Heng playing Chakra has a haunted look, tired but resolute, terrified but tough. The guy who plays the captain is a sinister slave driver and a half. The way he looks and smiles at you is enough to chill your blood even if you have no idea what he’s saying.

Writer-director Rodd Rathjen puts us in the position of a close observer on the boat, often staring at the cruelty through the eyes of Chakra, unblinking, with nowhere else to turn in this claustrophobic prison. Rathjen’s calm and placid approach in pacing and editing makes Buoyancy a gripping viewing, powerful with a gut punch without a real need for drama. He strikes a precise balance between grim realism and white-knuckled thriller.

The end credits tell us there are some 200,000 men and boys enslaved in the fishing industry in Thailand. According to Rathjen this movie is a composite of stories he’s heard from some survivors. What we see is only one boat, a drop in the ocean in terms of the human tragedy unfolding on a daily basis. This is a story of how a boy finds his way to survival essentially by mimicking the methods of his tormentors. By the time Chakra takes control and reclaims his life, we don’t think of his actions in terms of right or wrong, because it’s just impossible.


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