Buoyancy (2019)

In Buoyancy (2019), the debut of writer-director Rodd Rathjen, 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng) runs away from the Cambodian home shared with his big family.

Here he has worked hard, gets fed and has a roof over his head.

On his flight, he rides pillion on a motor cycle and relishes the freedom by stretching out his arms in a Christ-like pose.

Little does he know he is on his road to perdition.

The goal is Thailand but without the money to buy work in a factory, he is taken to a fishing boat with the adult Kea (Mony Ros), who is similarly bereft of required funds.

On the boat, they work hard, get fed and have a roof over their heads but this is nothing like home. The two are part of the believed 200,000 slaves who work the Thai fishing industry.

Not getting paid for work, the reason Chakra ran away, is just as evident.

While Chakra somewhat looks to Kea to be his protector from the boat’s evil captain (Thanawut Kasro), it is the boy who survives.

The captain, seeing his young self in the teenager, threatens; murders some of his fellow crew; and attempts humour in engaging with Chakra. The youngster observes all these behaviours with a sense of foreboding but remains relatively silent and determinedly resolute.

He eventually takes deadly action and, having grown up in the land that produced Pol Pot’s killing fields, it is unsurprising he is aware of arbitrary death. There is a saying: “Talkers don’t shoot. Shooters don’t talk” and this fits Chakra neatly.


His lot is kill or be killed and he achieves this with a symbolic human bone found while emptying the nets. Like the ape in the first scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he uses it viciously. (As Chakra disposed of the helmsman, I was reminded of Joe Pesci persistently stabbing Frank Vincent in the neck with a pen in Casino (1990). 

If Rathjen wants to reference directors, choosing Kubrick and Scorsese is a good start.

Killing the captain and his evil cohorts, establishing superiority of the Burmese slaves on board and navigating the boat back to land, Chakra leaves with the contents of the bad guys’ money box.

However, the home to which he returns has not changed and with a tear in his eye, he walks away from it, towards the camera to an uncertain future. At the film’s beginning, he is shown walking away from camera, shouldering a heavy bag of rice, his flip-flops making the sound of the sea (thank you, Carla and Pru). 

The boy has survived but at what cost? Revenge or escape, he has still killed and the fate awaiting him has many possible paths.

Though strongly messaging the horrors of slavery, Buoyancy has other similar historic cinema precursors.

In Captain’s Courageous (1937), spoilt brat Freddie Bartholomew falls from a steamship only to be picked up by fishermen on their way to deeper seas. He is taught to work hard, earn his keep and becomes a man.

Alan Ladd played a similar but adult dandy in Two Years before the Mast (1946). Press ganged in error, Ladd’s character is shanghaied to his tycoon father’s ship and is treated cruelly by an evil captain and his first mate. 

Despite these films nearly book-ending World War II, violence was less obvious in this era. One cannot imagine Bartholomew, the highest-paid male child actor of his day, or heart-throb Ladd, bludgeoning baddies with an anchor chain or mooring hook.

Buoyancy is beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael Latham. More than one reviewer noted Chakra being filmed from on high, showing only head and shoulders, denoting the crushing existence of being on board.

This tense thriller set in a small space was a surprise packet. 

FOOTNOTE: Since seeing this film, I now check where the cat food I am buying is produced. The slave labour depicted in Buoyancy is the wellspring of fish caught and processed in Thailand for domestic animal consumption.

Score: 4.25

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