by Hope Madden
Hey, it’s been a pretty easy going year. Feel like a movie?
Well, first time feature filmmaker Rodd Rathjen has one for you and you’re not going to like it, but you should watch it anyway. Buoyancy shadows a 14-year-old Cambodian boy sold into slave labor on a Thai fishing trawler.
I know, but stay with me.
In his feature debut behind the camera, Rathjen wisely relies on naturalistic performances from mainly non-professional actors to recreate the circumstances rather than dramatize them.
Sarm Heng is Chakra, a put upon adolescent bristling at the limitations of his life. There’s the universal element of adolescent rebellion, here tied to far more than angst. Chakra does manual labor rather than going to school, and as kids in uniform whiz by him on bicycles, and cars on the nearby highway come and go, his stagnancy and the back breaking monotony awaiting him in adulthood press down on him.
He follows an opportunity to sneak away from home and get a ride out of the country, where he’ll make real money working in a factory. It’s OK if he doesn’t have the $500 fare to leave the country, he can work that off in his first month.
That’s not how it actually works, and we spend the rest of the film watching as Chaka’s realization comes to him in bits and pieces that he will probably never leave this rickety fishing boat.
Rathjen’s film ends with sobering facts concerning the modern slave trade in Southeast Asia, with as many as 200,000 boys and men currently missing and believed to be held in bondage on fishing boats. The filmmaker’s verité style helps us understand how this happens. There’s no boisterous villain detailing the scheme, no, “Ha! You belong to me now!” No one tells you you’re never being paid, never going home. You simply adjust to your circumstances or you die.
There’s little dialog once Chakra leaves the boys in the village behind, but Heng doesn’t need it. The evolution of this character hangs on his face. It’s a remarkable performance, especially from a kid who’s never acted before.
Heng gets an assist from two actors with some experience. An utterly heartbreaking Mony Ros is the middle aged man who falls prey to the scheme in the hopes of providing for his family. The camaraderie between these two characters is powerful, and it’s a theme Rathjen mirrors in Chakra’s relationship with the ship’s captain, played with menacing relish by Thenawut Ketsaro.
What they create together is harrowing, but it’s also a brilliant piece of filmmaking that needs to be seen.