Review: Buoyancy

24 September 2019

VCA graduate Rodd Rathjen’s debut feature, Buoyancy, is designed to provoke audiences with uncomfortable truths about modern slavery and our proximity to it via global food production, but there’s one particular question it raises which refuses to claw its way out of my mind: what does it take to break a 14 year old boy?

A Sisyphean tracking shot opens the film and introduces us to Chakra, a Cambodian teenager bearing a back-breaking sack of fertiliser as he endlessly trudges down a dirt road. It immediately establishes a visual parallel with Rathjen’s award-winning short, Tau Seru (2013), which also concerns a young foreign adult yearning for something greater beyond his remote surroundings, and who is similarly tasked with carrying an injured sheep across a never-ending expanse. Here, however, Chakra’s attempt at escaping his meagre agrarian lifestyle leaves him stranded at sea, swindled out of a fabled factory job in Bangkok and sold to a loathsome fishing captain by the name of Rom Ran (charismatically portrayed by Thanawut Kasro).

As the film informs us, this is the reality of 200,000 men and boys who are forced into slavery in the South East Asian fishing industry.

It is unequivocally grim, bracing subject matter, made all the more discomfiting by our alignment with Chakra (who newcomer Sarm Heng effortlessly imbues with both naïveté and mercurial depth). There’s a certain immediacy that is gained from transmuting the horrors of human trafficking from the abstract of statistics and headlines into the perspective of a guileless boy, and Buoyancy wrings out a palpable sense of unease as it sinks ever deeper into Chakra’s psyche. The film’s minimalist style effectively evokes his slowly-eroding internal landscape, from the queasy ebb and flow of waves permeating its sparse soundscape to the suffocating emptiness of its seascape photography (captured by another VCA graduate, Michael Latham). When violence erupts, it’s captured in a chillingly offhand, observational manner, careful not to indulge in orientalist sensationalism—although one oddly elaborate death scene and several predictable story beats do threaten to yank at the illusory realism of the story.

Like Bong-Joon Ho’s barnstorming Parasite (2019) (still playing at Cinema Nova!), Buoyancy develops a compelling dynamic amongst its underclass of workers. The grim conditions fracture the slaves, forcing them to compete for their share of food, and even for the captain’s approval. When Chakra successfully develops a rapport with Rom Ran, a former child slave himself, the film suggests our hero is poised to perpetuate this abusive cycle.

Buoyancy is a commendable debut, effectively distilling a systemic atrocity into a tightly crafted, if occasionally familiar thriller, while finding considerable pathos in its perverse coming-of-age narrative. It’s certainly one of the finest Australian films of the year so far, and with its international setting and focus, it helps reconfigure what an Australian film can be.

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