The bleak world of South-East Asian people-smuggling might seem unlikely terrain for a coming-of-age adventure on the pirate fishing seas, but Australian director Rodd Rathjen has taken up the challenge — and attendant cultural risk — for his absorbing feature film debut, Buoyancy.
In the rice fields of Cambodia, scrawny 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng) works long hours for little money on his family’s farm, beset by many a familiar teenage concern: pining for the local rich girl he’s too poor to ask out, bickering with his penny-pinching taskmaster dad (Sareoun Sopheara) over dinner, and gazing into the distance at a motorway that always seems to be leaving town for a more exciting future.
“Everybody’s going somewhere, doing something,” he complains to a friend, like so many teenage dreamers stuck in a dead-end existence before him. “I’m not staying back.”
But Chakra gets more than he bargained for when he hears of a potential well-paid job at a local factory, and — unable to pony up the down payment to buy his way in — instead gets sent to what he thinks is another factory in order to work off his debt.
Bundled into a pickup truck with other unsuspecting workers and shuttled through blackest night, Chakra soon finds himself in Bangkok — a city glimpsed fleetingly from car windows, as though in waking nightmare.
He and travelling companion Kea (Mony Ros) are taken aboard a grimy Thai fishing trawler, presided over by remorseless captain Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro) — a shirtless, villainously grinning figure who rules the vessel in nylon board shorts, gold chain, and stringy, dyed-red shoulder-length hair.
On board, Chakra, Kea, and the other captives are set to work hauling in fishing nets and sorting through the daily catches, while sleeping piled on top of each other in cramped cabins, being rudely awoken in the dead of night for early-morning hauls, and subjected to brutal beatings whenever they fail to work at a satisfactory clip.
As the ship wanders farther out to sea in search of richer pickings, the boys’ plight only worsens.
Both the sun-scorched sea and the cramped, monochrome interiors are captured with evocative light by cinematographer Michael Latham, who shot both the otherworldly tones of Alena Lodkina’s outback-set Strange Colours and the hyperreal intensity of Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet — two of the best Australian-directed films of recent years.
He gives Buoyancy the burnished look of a picturesque boys’ own adventure about to go awry — which it very quickly does.
Performed with menacing gusto by Kasro, Rom Ram is the kind of bad guy who isn’t afraid to shock a tired worker with a cattle prod and tip him into the water, toss another would-be escapee overboard with a weight around his ankle, or tether another mutinous crew member to a grisly sea version of the human rack — like some terrifying, low-rent Bond villain.
By contrast, former street kid and first-time performer Heng has the kind of expressive stillness necessary to take all these horrors in, and Rathjen holds on Chakra’s alternate disgust and seduction as he searches for a means of survival.
While Rathjen, an acclaimed short filmmaker whose film Tau Seru played Cannes in 2013, has pitched the movie as a kind of sobering ethnographic document, the escalating conflict between dastardly captain and the boy he’s adopted as a protege pushes the film into full-tilt survival adventure mode.
If anything, it’s a strength that Buoyancy is so gripping in a classical narrative sense — though there will be questions about the film’s authenticity, given its non-local authorship and the matter of just who gets to tell this story.
Rathjen says he set out to make the film as authentic as possible, collaborating closely with Cambodians and Thais, interviewing scores of actual survivors, and casting many of the actors to portray the trawler crew from real-life ship workers, who brought their experiences to the shoot.
The film also gestures at regional class complexity in flashbacks to Chakra’s homelife, in which he’s racially bullied, making him feel both contempt for — and a need to impress — his Thai captors.
Whether these things justify the filmmakers’ cultural tourism is open for debate, particularly when the film tips toward what some might see as an almost far-fetched, action movie denouement — albeit one weighted with a bittersweet ending, which appends Chakra’s journey to the heart of darkness with chilly ambivalence.
Either way, Buoyancy is a compelling, grisly coming-of-age adventure, one that plunges headlong into that compromised rite of passage of a boy becoming a man, and the moral abandon of an innocent becoming a monster.
It’s one of the strongest Australian debut films of recent years.
Buoyancy is in cinemas from September 26.